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Report: Firefighting costs eroding conservation

People watch a fire burning from the Highway 41 overlook on the way north into Oakhurst, Calif., Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. The fire is burning north of the community. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora)

People watch a fire burning from the Highway 41 overlook on the way north into Oakhurst, Calif., Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. The fire is burning north of the community. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora)

The Obama administration detailed yesterday the toll that the escalating cost of fighting forest fires has had on other projects as it pushes Congress to overhaul how it pays for the most severe blazes.

In a new report, the Agriculture Department said that staffing for fighting fires has more than doubled since 1998. Meanwhile, the number of workers who manage National Forest System lands has dropped by about a third.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that accommodating the rapid rise in firefighting costs has harmed an array of conservation efforts. For example, spending that helps restore vegetation and watersheds after a fire has fallen 22 percent since 2001. Another program that partners with states and private landowners to conserve wildlife habitat has been cut by 17 percent during that same period.

The biggest hit has occurred with the maintenance of thousands of recreational sites and buildings managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Vilsack said. Spending on maintenance has decreased by two-thirds.

“That’s created, literally, a multi-billion dollar backlog of unfulfilled maintenance, which obviously over time is going to cost us additional resources,” Vilsack said. “It really does speak to the need for a new and different way of funding fires, particularly those more intense, more expensive fires.

The administration wants to use an already existing disaster relief fund to cover the expense of the most severe fires.

In a letter to colleagues last month, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said fighting forest fires should be a funding priority, but the administration’s proposal would “lead to higher spending, deficits and debt.”

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