Analysis: Could Future Savings Pay for Forest Treatment Today?

Conservationists have had a hard time making fire-management forestry pay for itself through business startups. But public support for fire mitigation could pay big economic benefits down the road.

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Part of a series.

The solution for how to pay for intensive forest management to mitigate fire risk seems like a free-market win-win. Pay for the fire-mitigation management through the economic value of the materials removed from the woods. 

MAIN STORY: Exploring Solutions: Reducing Fire Risk Burns Through Money
How do we pay for the forest-management techniques that could reduce property damage, loss of life, and economic disruption? Two Western nonprofits are leading the way, but there’s no simple answer.

But the reality is much more complicated, as we learned from leaders of two nationally recognized nonprofits that have been experimenting with business models. 

Entrepreneurial market-based initiatives, such as those conducted by the Watershed Center in Northern California and Mt. Adams Resource Stewards in South-Central Washington, have been difficult to sustain financially over the long run.  

But there is another potential source of funding – the future value of the reduced costs for fighting wildfire once better forest-management practices are in place. 

Advocates have strategically targeted the budget of the U. S. Forest Service and Department of Interior to pay for forest management that reduces wildfire risk. Much of the money that pays for the firefighters and their equipment comes from those government agencies. In the recent past, the portion of the budget that goes to fight fires is calculated from a 10-year average of fire suppression spending.  

As wildfire costs have risen in the past decade, the wildfire budget has eaten a growing share of the overall budget. The Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition reports that the Forest Service firefighting budget grew from 16% of agency expenses in 1995 to more than half of agency expenses today. The strain on the budget leaves efforts for fire suppression underfunded and decreases funding for programs that might prevent fires in the first place. 

Rural communities, some forest managers, and conservation advocates from the West have argued for years that the nation needs a

ALSO IN THIS SERIES: Exploring Solutions: ‘Wildfire as a Fact of Life’
Wildfires are burning hotter and faster, taking more lives and destroying more property. Climate change and human development patterns are only making the problem worse. So what can forest communities do to reduce their risk? Or, as one conservationist asks, how much fire can we live with?

comprehensive “fire fix” that stabilizes funding, allows access to disaster funding and prevents transfers of dollars out of other land management and prevention budgets. Those voices were heard in 2018 with the passage of the FY2018 Omnibus Spending Package. Though that package won’t be fully operational until 2020, the goal is for rural communities to see increased access to preventative forest wildfire funding that reduces wildfire risk.  

2018 is also likely to become one of the most expensive years for damaging wildfires, with 52,303 fires burning 8,543,463 acres for the year so far, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. These 2018 totals include the devastating Carr and Camp fires in Northern California.  

Other possibilities for improving funding for forest management practices include some private-sector prospects such Blue Forest Conservation’s “Forest Resilience Bonds.” The for-profit company pays for conservation practices in forests that reduce wildfire risk and enhance forest value, either through the reduced chance of catastrophic megafires or additional earnings from forest products like lumber. Blue Forest then helps coordinate and pay for forest restoration activities. The beneficiary of the restoration, whether a federal agency like the Forest Service or a publicly-owned water utility company, then pays for the services on a long-term contracted rate. The money to pay back the bonds might come from a future forest yielding more income from better timber, or it can come from the money an agency won’t have to spend fighting catastrophic fires in that forest.  

This article was produced with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network. 

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