All of those dream homes that are sprouting up at the edge of national forests in the West are creating a nightmare for the U.S. Forest Service.
Increasingly, the federal agency is raiding its bank account to douse wildfires at the expense of some of the public’s favorite outdoor programs, according to the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Star Tribune.
A new analysis of the Forest Service budget shows the agency, already staggering under stagnant funding, might soon spend virtually all of its average annual $4.5 billion federal appropriation fighting fires that threaten homes on the rim of national forests.
Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit consulting firm in Bozeman, Mont., which issued the report, found that the nation’s taxpayers are bound to spend even more as increasingly affluent Westerners continue to seek solace in wild country subdivisions.
That means the Forest Service amenities the public most cares about – clean campgrounds, sturdy trails, fish-cleaning stations and ranger talks – could go begging, said Ray Rasker, Headwaters executive director and co-author of the report.
“Fire is becoming the big gorilla that is eating all the bananas,” Rasker said.
And it could get worse. Houses now stand on 14% of the land at the edges of national forests. If 50% of the lands on the urban-forest line go to housing, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion, Rasker’s report says.
“It’s like the perfect storm,” Rasker said. “We’ve got fuel buildup from the Smoky Bear years. We’ve got a warming climate and more drought. We’ve got a lot of insect infestations, so a lot of these forests are dead. And we’ve got a more prosperous West where people want to live out of town in the woods.”
The Forest Service has reported that the cost of firefighting has exceeded $1 billion four times since 2000. Last year, the bill was $1.5 billion. Already this year, with months of fire season still to go, nearly 65,000 fires have burned almost 7 million acres and cost $1 billion.