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Firefighting costs out of control, says panel



WASHINGTON - Economists, foresters and federal officials debated Thursday how to lower the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires, mulling solutions that ranged from staying the course to abolishing the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency's fire spending is "out of control," said Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank. A forest economist, O'Toole released a policy paper suggesting a range of six alternatives to fix the problem.

O'Toole said the Forest Service has had a virtual blank check to fight wildfires. After bad fire seasons or loss of life or homes in wildfires, Congress rewards the agency with more money, he said.

"Fire has given the Forest Service money and power more than almost anything else," O'Toole said.

O'Toole argued the pros and cons of the alternatives, but did not advocate the most extreme suggestion, abolishing the agency. He said it's too big a change and would face much opposition. And mismanagement of private lands, such as federal subsidies for some crops, often has been worse than on public lands, he said.

Another option he outlined would be to focus solely on the wildland-urban interface, where homes and forests meet, and let most fires burn. But O'Toole added that not every ecosystem needs the same treatment and some areas would benefit from fire protection.

Even in the wildland-urban interface, the Forest Service should consider whether it would be less expensive to allow some homes to burn, especially if they don't comply with fire-safe rules, than to spend millions on suppression, he said.

Relying on private insurance to fund, and so rein in, the huge costs of fire suppression may not be realistic, O'Toole said. And another alternative, turning management of the national forests over to state or local authorities, would have little popular support.

O'Toole proposes to stop funding the Forest Service with tax dollars. Instead, each forest's budget would come from its own user fees, including timber, grazing, mining and recreation. Individual forests' board of directors could choose whether to use the fees on fire suppression or to let more fires burn, he said.

James Hubbard, deputy chief for state and private forestry with the Forest Service, said he wouldn't comment for or against specific alternatives. But he said staying the course isn't the answer.

"I would just say that this suppression cost problem does need some type of a solution," Hubbard said. "Whether we pursue that through different alternatives, through pilot (projects) that we test or through political solutions, one way or another, the Forest Service needs some help solving this problem."

"We can do certain things about cost containment but that won't totally solve the problem, I don't believe, because of the weather conditions and the fuel accumulations that we're facing in those forests," he said. "So we're going to continue to spend a lot of money on suppression. And the way it's happening now, it's consuming the Forest Service budget and it's doing so at the detriment of other programs. So we need a different scheme."

The Forest Service spent $1.5 billion on wildfire suppression last fire season, when 5 million acres burned, Hubbard said. The agency has already implemented 57 cost-saving recommendations, he said. "It's not like we've ignored the situation, but it continues to grow."

Decisions made by line officers on how to approach a fire dictate the cost, Hubbard said. So this year the Forest Service chief told line officers to use a more flexible approach in deciding what resources to throw at fires.

"We want you to take the appropriate response," Hubbard said. "It isn't the same in all situations."

The agency will allow more fires not threatening lives or homes to burn, he said.

The agency needs to examine public and private roles in the wildland-urban interface, Hubbard said. He said the agency will consider sharing more responsibilities with local fire districts in such areas. Issues such as zoning, fire codes and encouraging homeowners to fireproof their houses are better done by local officials, he said.

"Suppression is a finance problem, a cost problem and a culture problem," Hubbard said.

Other cost-saving measures he cited include dispatching a principal representative to large fires, using a new computer mapping program to predict how fires will act and continuing to reduce the buildup of dry brush and trees.

O'Toole said the Forest Service has had the "wrong strategy" on hazardous fuels and that entire forests don't need to be treated. Instead, only a 130-foot perimeter surrounding homes needs to be treated.

Douglas Crandall, policy director of the Society of American Foresters, disagreed. "Treatment makes a difference, fuel makes a difference," he said.

Crandall said the Forest Service must be protected from political meddling. Lawmakers from individual districts or states demand that the agency treat fires there in a certain way and the agency often complies, he said.

Crandall also wants Congress to allow pilot projects around the country to see how some of the alternative ideas work.


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