Burning an Empire: NAFSR's Letter to Secretary Purdue and Workforce Capacity Study

Burning an Empire: NAFSR's Letter to Secretary Purdue and Workforce Capacity Study

Thank God the 2019 wildfire season has not yet turned into the tragedy that occurred in 2018 when 102 people died amid California’s worst wildfire season ever. About 1.9 million acres were burnt in 8,527 separate fires. Insurance claims now total $12 billion.

Nationally, 8.8 million acres were burned in 58,083 wildfires, close to three times the annual average for the 1990s. Of the 8.8 million acres burnt, 4.6 million were on federal land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. About 80 million federal acres are now considered “at risk,” meaning wildfire is eminent.

The reasons why are explained in painful detail in a new report compiled by the National Association of Forest Service Retirees [NAFSR]. Sustaining the Forest Service: Increasing Work Force Capacity could have just as easily been titled Burning an Empire, after Stewart Holbrook’s 1943 book by the same name.

Sustaining the Forest Service: Increasing Work Force Capacity isn’t the agency’s autopsy, but it’s close and you should take a few minutes to read it and its accompanying letter to Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue. Both can be found at the bottom of the page

NAFSR’s report dissects workforce capacity, exposing the fact that Congress is not appropriating enough money to fund large scale treatments in “at risk” national forests before they burn. The predictable result is that more than half the Forest Service’s $5.8 billion annual appropriation is now spent fighting forest fires, leaving too little for preventive measures – like thinning trees from forests that have grown too dense to sustain themselves.

NAFSR’s report lays bare the fact that the number of fire personnel hired by the Forest Service has increased 132 percent since 1992. Meantime, the number of specialists needed to reduce the risk of wildfire has decreased 54 percent. The actual and percentage losses are listed on Page 5 of the report. Here are the percentages by skill set:

Foresters            Down 74 percent

Engineering technicians    Down 72 percent

Professional engineers    Down 51 percent

Forestry technicians        Down 49 percent

Interdisciplinary leaders    Down 45 percent

Wildlife biologists        Down 38 percent

Fisheries biologists        Up 28 percent

Fire personnel            Up 132 percent


No damned wonder the West’s national forests are burning to the ground. No damned wonder the loss of life and property are skyrocketing.

The Forest Service’s capacity to care for national forests has been in freefall since the federal government listed the northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990. On-the-ground treatments – thinning, timber sales, stewardship contracts, prescribed fire, managed fire, herbicides and mechanical treatments – need to be funded now.

Conveniently forgotten when the owl was listed is the fact that nature does not give a damn about human need. We must plan, staff, train and actively manage for the things we want from our national forests. Nature is not going to magically meet our needs. Never has. Never will.

This tragic and unsustainable situation needs to become an election-year issue. To that end, I have written a book titled, First, Put Out the Fire in which I describe how we got ourselves into this damned mess and what we must do to stuff the Bad Wildfire Genie back in her bottle and put the Good Genie and lots of loggers to work. The search for a literary agent is underway. The fires that threaten our forests, lives and communities are both literal and political.

There is a readily available solution to the funding side of this problem. Facebook’s $5 billion fine – assessed last week by the Federal Trade Commission – needs to go directly into a fund earmarked for treating “at risk” national forests. Not fire. Pre-fire restoration. Staff, training and independent contractors who know how to reduce the risk of wildfire in our national forests. This Green New Deal every American will support.

Jim Petersen

Founder and President

The non-profit Evergreen Foundation

Read the full text of the Workforce capacity study here.

Read the full text of NAFSR's Letter to Secretary Purdue here.

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