As Wildfires Rage, Trump Slashes Fire Management Budgets

by Jayson O’Neill

The Rim Fire burned more than 250,000 acres of forest near Yosemite National Park, in 2013.
Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

As wildfires have raged across Western states in recent weeks amidst another record-breaking wildfire season that is destroying lives and communities, new research released by Western Values Project finds President Trump has repeatedly cut federal funding dedicated to preventing and mitigating the spread of wildfires. He has often rebuked experts within his administration and withheld funding for political reasons. And, Trump blamed state officials to try to shirk responsibility — even though most of the fires are occurring on federal lands — all while padding the pockets of logging companies.

                              The Western Values Project Finds the Following

Trump Cut Budgets of Federal Fire Management Programs and Services While Knowing of Heightened Risks.
Trump has pushed long-term forest fire management budget cuts, leading to fewer staff, including fewer firefighters, and less money for reducing wildfire risk. Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposed cutting $948 million — nearly $1 billion — from the National Forest Service (NFS), including slashing state wildfire action plans and conversation funding. Between 2019 and 2021, Trump cut funding for the critical wildfire suppression program by nearly $600 million, even though his administration acknowledged that 63 million acres of federal forestlands and 70,000 communities were at risk of uncharacteristically severe wildfires. Instead of increasing budgets to try to prevent fires, the federal government has been relegated to fighting them once they’re blazing.

Trump Cut Fire Research Budgets, Going Against His Own Administration’s Experts.
Programmatic cuts have plagued fire science research, and Trump tried to completely eliminate funding for a program that develops fire prevention and management best practices. While the program survived, its budget has been cut by more than half. Further, even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) budget proposal summary emphasizes the importance of funding research, Trump’s FY 2020 budget called for cutting $45 million in forest and rangeland research money and eliminating forest service research positions. The proposed USDA budget included funding for roughly half the number of full-time employees (160, down from 329 in 2019) at USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Federal Forests Have Faced Particularly Severe Wildfires in Recent Years, But Trump Has Failed to Increase Funding.
Wildfires have become more severe and impactful. California broke a record from 2018 for the number of acres burned — 3.2 million in 2020, up from 1.9 million two years ago. About 330,000 acres have burned in Washington, the most in over a decade. While Trump blames state officials for the wildfires, they are happening mostly on federal lands. Of the 33 million acres of forest in California, federal agencies own and manage 57 percent of them. Even though wildfires got worse, Trump didn’t propose increasing the budget to deal with the problem. Instead, NFS’s wildland fire management activities’ budget remained at $2.4 billion. His Fiscal Year 2021 USDA budget proposed the same amount — $2.4 billion — for forest service wildland fire management activities.

Trump Withheld Funding for Political Purposes.
The former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and awards disaster relief funding, said, “[Trump] told us to stop giving money to people whose houses had burned down from a wildfire because he was so resentful that people in the state of California didn’t support him and that politically it wasn’t a base for him.” Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NFS withheld $9 million worth of routine reimbursements owed to California fire agencies for their time fighting fires on federal lands.

Trump Pushed Timber Industry’s False Narrative Blaming Fires on Forest Management, Not Climate Change.
As wildfires raged across California in August, Trump said, “You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.” This narrative seeks to advance support for more logging in the state, which benefits the timber industry. However, experts say logging wouldn’t necessarily help prevent or lessen wildfires, but might negate the forests abilities to absorb carbon dioxide.

Jayson O’Neill is the director of Western Values Project, based in Montana, which defends America’s public lands through research and public education to expose special interest influence on policymakers.

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