MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
The costs of fighting large fires in California and elsewhere has forced the U.S. Forest Service to divert money set aside for roads, trails and recreational improvements. In a memo this month to regional foresters, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service said spending on fires could reach $1.6 billion this year, about half the agency's budget. "All of you are aware of the serious nature of this year's fire season and the issues faced by the agency in paying for fire suppression costs," Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell wrote. "At this time the only option for financing the shortfall is to use the agency's transfer authority." The agency started transferring money in the middle of August, and expects to take a total of $400 million from other areas through the rest of the year. Environmentalists predicted fire spending could be closer to $2 billion before it is all done, and transfers could run as high as $700 million. Among those programs seeing cuts are fire prevention and safety. "We are robbing the Peters to pay the Pauls," said Chris Mehl, spokesman for The Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies Office in Bozeman. "The unfortunate thing is that it is across the board." Money will be coming from restoration projects, building Maintenance, land acquisition plans, research and other areas. In South Dakota, the Forest Service has closed early a visitor center in the Black Hills National Forest to save money. Spending on all non-critical items for the rest of the year must be curtailed, Kimbell told foresters. "I recognize that this direction will have a significant effect on agency operations," Kimbell said in the memo. "However, we must be in a position to protect life and property from wildfire and do so within the funds available to the agency." U. S. Sen. Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was not pleased to hear of the cuts. "The fire season in Montana and across the country is far from over. Not to mention we have good-paying jobs to fund and projects around the state that need to be completed," said Baucus, D-Mont. "Funding should not be pulled from our state's resources to help pay for fighting fires in California." Baucus said he is pushing for a special account to pay for firefighting costs. Forest Service funds allocated to fighting fires has steadily increased, rising about 10 percent from 2006 to 2007, but has not been able to meet the needs of this year's large fires, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the agency's northern region. Mehl with The Wilderness Society said he likes the idea of Congress setting up separate budgets one for fires and one for normal Forest Service operations. The group said fighting fires could surpass 50 percent of the Forest Service budget this year, and is quickly dominating work at the agency. "The costs are high, and they need to suppress these fires to protect people," Mehl said. "But the Forest Service is basically becoming the fire service."