COMMENTARY: Fire funding fix provides opportunity to help others

The Delaware Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service has trained more than 600 volunteer firefighters, and now every season deploys 20-person crews for out-of-state wildfire assignments. (Submitted photo)

An American farmer — proud, hardworking, and resilient. Farming is a way of life, with stories of hardship and success passed down through the generations. Even with all the technology that our farmers have today, nothing can truly prepare a farmer for our current natural disasters.

Over the past 10-15 years, we have seen an increase in severe weather events and natural disasters throughout the country. From torrential rains to drought to blizzards and mudslides to forest fires, each catastrophic natural disaster brings new challenges to our farm families that earlier generations did not endure.

One of the most troubling trends has been the increasingly larger and more catastrophic wildfires that have burned large swaths of the countryside — particularly publicly owned national forests and nearby private lands including timberland, farms, and wineries. Fighting fires has consumed more and more federal funding instead of using it for forest and wildlife conservation efforts in Delaware and elsewhere. However, thanks to bipartisan support in Congress the U.S. Forest Service — USFS — will have the resources it needs both to respond to disastrous fires and fund fire prevention, habitat restoration, recreation management and the forest grants that are so important to Delaware and other states.

The recently approved 2018 omnibus spending bill included a solution to so-called “fire borrowing.” For several years, the USFS has been forced to spend more of its budget on fighting the massive fires that erupt earlier in the season and more often due to drought and warmer weather. The agency spends more than half its budget on fires, up from 15 percent in the 1990s. Without the kind of fix provided in the spending bill, the cost was estimated to soar to two-thirds of the Forest Service budget in a decade.

That’s great news for the state of Delaware and for the members and supporters of the National Wildlife Federation concerned about improving forest resilience, reducing wildfire risk and protecting our waters and wildlife habitat. Massive wildfires fueled by a changing climate will be treated like the disasters they are. The Forest Service can tap disaster funds just as other agencies use disaster funds for tornadoes, hurricanes and floods. This will allow the Forest Service to get ahead of the problem, to break the vicious cycle of draining money from conservation, forest restoration and fire prevention to fight the fires that might been tempered by more investment on the front end.

Delaware might seem removed from some of these situations, such as the devastating fires that swept over large parts of California or the drought-fueled blazes in parts of the Southeast. But we are really in the thick of it helping our neighbors across the country with the expertise of the Delaware Forest Service. Through funding that we receive from the USFS, Delaware trains and sends wildland firefighters out of state during times of national need like we saw last year.

This year’s fire funding fix will provide for more stable budgets for the USFS — not only for the national forests but also the State and Private Forestry Program, allowing staff to focus on important forestry issues (forest health, forest stewardship, etc.), rather than having to worry about losing these funds to fire borrowing. By allowing the USFS staff to properly manage national forests, including, but not limited to, harvesting (clear cuts and thinnings), road construction, and fire break construction, these management activities can help reduce the risk of wildfires impacting farms and ranches and increase the safety of our Delaware wildland firefighters who respond to these national disasters.

We appreciate that our lawmakers helped to increase flexibility on federal forest reforms in order to stop the significantly adverse budget impacts from wildfire suppression funding on the residents and forests of Delaware. Each year USFS provides approximately $500,000 of critical funding to the State of Delaware through State and Private Forestry programs. These funds help fund five Delaware Department of Agriculture employees. Without a national forest in Delaware, we rely on this funding to support our four core forestry programs:

• Urban & Community Forestry (tree planting grants for communities);

• State Fire Assistance (equipment grants for Volunteer Fire Companies);

• Forest Health (aerial survey, ground surveys, statewide pest monitoring); and

• Forest Stewardship (encourages use of sound forest management practices).

The funding also helps us reach hundreds of citizens directly and thousands indirectly in terms of healthy forests, water quality, and proper forest management. Our staff is able to complete tree planting projects in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed every year to increase tree canopy and improve water quality. We also make direct contact with up to 9,500 Delaware first-graders every year with our popular Fire Prevention (Smokey Bear) Program. Without these critical USFS funds, the Delaware Forest Service would not be able to conserve, protect, and enhance Delaware’s forest resources that offer a multitude of natural benefits to all the citizens of the First State.

We in Delaware join other state officials, the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation and wildlife organizations in commending lawmakers for passage of a fire funding solution and encouraging a continued bipartisan effort to enact a comprehensive approach to ensuring that our forests are healthy for the sake of our wildlife, sportsmen and women, outdoor enthusiasts and communities.

Michael T. Scuse is Delaware secretary of agriculture and Collin O’Mara is National Wildlife Federation president and CEO.

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