Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mount St. Helens National Monument and the US Forest Service

I just spent yesterday at the Mount St Helens National Monument, and wanted to recommend it to anyone who passes through southern Washington or northern Oregon. Not to be missed, the US Forest Service do a great job of keeping it maintained, accessible, and making it educational.


Their budget is around $5.5 billion, which sounds a lot but there are a few things to consider - the maintain nearly 200,000,000 acres of public land (mowing my 0.1 acres of lawn is pain enough...) and nearly 400,000,000 acres of private land, manage forestry and mineral extraction, and then the most visible part to the public - keeping lands and national monuments open and available for education and recreation. That results in an estimated ~$35 billion of economic activity such as tourism. Seems a pretty good return on investment for the country.

Amazingly, half of that budget is spent fighting fires, so when you hear the calls for eliminating various agencies and reducing their budgets, remember that a lot of these agencies are a victim of their own success. Perhaps they should let a few towns burn down now and then to remind people that forest fires can be bad...

I'm only half joking there, because 20 years ago the cost of fire fighting took up 1/6th of their budget and it's been rapidly increasing since. They estimate it's going to double again in the next 30 years.

Changing climatic conditions across regions of the United States are driving increased temperatures— particularly in regions where fire has not been historically prominent. This change is causing variations and unpredictability in precipitation and is amplifying the effects and costs of wildfire. Related impacts are likely to continue to emerge in several key areas: limited water availability for fire suppression, accumulation at unprecedented levels of vegetative fuels that enable and sustain fires, changes in vegetation community composition that make them more fire prone, and an extension of the fire season to as many as 300 days in many parts of the country. These factors result in fires that increasingly exhibit extreme behavior and are more costly to manage. 

The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000. Moreover, since 2000, many western states have experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history. 

In addition, more and more development is taking place near forests—an area referred to as the WildlandUrban Interface (WUI). Increasing densities of people and infrastructure in the WUI makes management more complex and requires more complex and requires more firefighting assets to ensure an appropriate, safe, and effective response that protects lives and property.

We're living with an administration that's trying to remove national monuments, sell off public lands to private only use, and is slashing budgets for departments like this - the FY2018 budget looks to be reduced by nearly $1 billion. The service keeps up with the firefighting - it has no choice - but this is at the cost of deferred maintenance and reducing other activities which support the land and recreation. At some point, this is going to the the US Forest Firefighting Service, and that's all. It may seem a minor thing when we're dealing with other major, immediate, crises, but the US Forest Service provides a critical function for our country, and we need to support it.

On a happier note, the trip into the Mt St Helens Monument was fun. Stop at the visitors center about 5 miles in from I-5 for the educational side, then drive up about 50 more miles to the observatory for some fantastic views of the volcano.


There are a ton of trails and other parts of the monument to access, we barely scratched the surface. Try and go if you're ever in this part of the world, and support the US Forest Service whenever you can, we all rely on them for way more than most realize.


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