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Western wildfire suppression spending has risen from $400 million in 1985 to more than $3.5 billion in 2013. The steady increase of costs levied on the United States Forest Service and Department of Interior has led the Forest Service to begin borrowing funds from other agency programs.

The borrowed funds are taking money from conservation projects and grants to provide state forest services the ability to prevent wildfires and promote better private land management in a fire season that has grown more than 60 days longer than those of 30 years ago, a report released Thursday by the Forest Service.

Western members of Congress in the House and Senate have met resistance with a bill meant to fix the funding problem and provide Forest Service officials with the means to continue funding conservation programs across the country.

“When they start working with fire borrowing, the USDA starts taking dollars out of other budget line items that can take away funding from their state and private lands programs,” said Bill Crapser, Wyoming State Forester. “They could actually pull some of our unused grant money back for use in fire transfers.”

USDA funds are often used to support state initiatives to manage forests and educate private landowners on the importance of taking precaution to prevent fires.

Crapser said the state receives more than $2 million per year to pay for private land fuel mitigation projects, defensible space projects and the Forestry Department’s assistance of local Wyoming fire departments.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act changes the treatment of wildfires by compiling a $2.7 billion fund appropriated by congress for the USDA and Department of Interior’s use in fire suppression. The measure would end the need for the USDA to pull funding from conservation projects.

Advocates say the bill will bring better conservation practices to forests in the East and West alike.

“We don’t borrow regionally, we borrow nationally,” said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the USDA. “This impacts all Forest Service programs across the board.”

Bonnie said wildfire funding in the West is taking funds from programs in the eastern U.S. aimed to combat invasive species and promote conservation of forest land.

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Rita Hite, executive vice president of the American Forest Foundation, said the legislation could be moved forward as part of the Department of Interior’s appropriations bill, but that the bill is currently stalled in committee.

Hite emphasized the nationwide scope of the issue.

“There are impacts across the board, but I think the conversation is primarily focused on Western issues when, in fact, there are significant factors on the East Coast,” Hite said.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is working closely with legislators to enact the change.

The organization's president, Whit Fosburgh, said the argument is more than Washington, D.C. accounting. He said the impacts stretch over 190-million acres of the National Forest System.

“The good news is that there is a fix,” Fosburgh said. “The bad news is that Congress needs to act to pass the bill. How we account for fire suppression costs in the federal budget absolutely must change if we want better managed forests and fewer catastrophic fires.”

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Reach general assignment reporter Trevor Graff at 307-266-0639 or Trevor.Graff@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @TrevGraff.

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