CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Our nation has reached a new fire reality. This decade we have seen 57 percent more fire, the length of the fire season has grown by more than two months, and the average size of fires has nearly quintupled since 1970. The costs of these extreme fires are measured in tragic deaths to firefighters, homes lost, heavy smoke aggravating public health, suffering businesses, and damage to our forests, which provide half our nation's water.
We have been lucky in West Virginia that we have not seen the destructive, massive fires that have broken out in California, Idaho, Montana and elsewhere in the West this summer. But that does not mean our forests are not being harmed. This month the Forest Service announced it had run out of money to fight fires, and needed to start taking money away from other crucial programs to cover the costs. These "losing" programs support jobs, water, and wildlife.
The money is taken away from programs everywhere that help private landowners and public land managers address the many other pressing problems that affect the health of our forests. Efforts in West Virginia to address invasive plants and insect pests, restore damaged forests, and repair degraded streams face the real possibility of seeing their funding taken away to make up for underfunded firefighting. Funding national forests like our own George Washington and Monongahela use for providing jobs, recreation, road maintenance, and timber management is at risk, along with federal support for state forestry projects.
"With suppression inadequately funded, it's not a surprise that we're in a transfer situation once again, but these transfers add insult to injury," said National Association of State Foresters President and West Virginia State Forester Randy Dye. "States are still dealing with the impacts from last year's transfers and now another round will further disrupt state forestry work and harm those important partnerships cultivated when developing forest projects."
Congress needs to address this immediately, and give the Forest Service and other agencies the resources they need to address this growing threat. The Nature Conservancy has joined with a coalition of businesses, conservationists, timber groups and sportsmen associations who are voicing this urgent need to Congress.
In short, we are asking Congress to immediately provide the Forest Service $600 million in emergency funding to cover the firefighting shortfalls; address these shortfalls in the 2014 budget; and establish a long-term solution that funds fire emergencies just like any other federal emergency, such as hurricanes and floods.
There are proactive forest restoration solutions we can use to reduce the risk and damage of emergency fires. We just need Congress to provide the resources to make our forests healthier for people, water and wildlife.Bartgis is state director of The Nature Conservancy.