The U.S. Forest Service says it has increased the pace and scale of its forest restoration work since 2011, but progress waned this year and the agency risks following further behind without more resources.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is using a new report to press Congress to change the way in which the federal government funds wildfire fighting. The report states that the Forest Services was able to thin out more than 4.6 million acres of forest lands in 2014, a 9 percent increase from 2011. The amount of timber produced for public consumption increased by about 12 percent during that same period.
Vilsack said he expects that improvements will drop off this year, but will still exceed the 2011 levels.
"We're doing more, but we're not necessarily keeping up with the risk that's out there. You've got 45 million acres of diseased trees out there that are just waiting for a lightning strike to ignite them," Vilsack said. "We've got to pick up the pace of restoration if we want to reduce the risk of fire."
With Congress finishing its work on this year's budget bills, the Obama administration is pressing for legislation that would treat the most devastating wildfires as natural disasters and relieve pressure on other parts of the Forest Service's budget.
Some Republican lawmakers are pushing an alternative bill that would ease the environmental review process for certain projects to speed up forest thinning projects. They would also provide disaster funding after 100 percent of the budget for firefighting has been consumed. Vilsack said the Forest Service needs more certainty.
"If I don't know for a fact I'll have that money available until the last day of the fiscal year, I can't commit it," Vilsack said.
Vilsack said the agency was able to do more with less thanks to changes that sped up the environmental review process for small projects and more work by states to thin federal lands.
He said budget constraints have reduced the number of Forest Service workers dedicated to restoration and recreation work by nearly 40 percent over the past 17 years. More than half the agency's budget was dedicated to firefighting this year, setting a record.
"We're moving the Forest Service from being a forest service to being a fire department," Vilsack said.