On the forty-second page of “The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future” author Randal O'Toole wrote (emphasis added):
of money for fire suppression each year. When fire costs exceeded this amount, the Forest Service was expected to borrow the money from its Knutson-Vandenberg (K-V) fund and then repay it in future years when costs were less than the annual appropriation.
The Forest Service responded with many cost-cutting measures, including allowing forests to let natural fires burn instead of suppressing every fire and changing strategies from suppressing fires on every acre to containing fires within natural boundaries. Average annual fire costs fell dramatically for several years. However, droughts in 1987 and 1988 forced the Forest Service to severely deplete the K-V fund. So in 1990, Congress gave the Forest Service a supplementary appropriration of nearly $280 million to replenish the fund.4
Congress's action effectively restored the blank-check mentality and reduced the incentive for forest managers to control costs. An internal Forest Service review in 2003 found that fire managers continued to act as though "suppression funds [were] unlimited." They spent millions of dollars on little-used rental cars, unnecessarily purchased upscale camping gear for crews, and paid exorbitant rates for firefighting equipment.5
Such free spending offers many opportunities for corruption. In 2006, a Forest Service purchasing agent in Oregon was discovered to have paid her boyfriend more than $640,000 in firefighting funds. No one in the agency missed the funds; she was caught only after someone tipped off the local district attorney that the couple was gambling away unusually large amounts of money.6
In 2000, a prescribed fire lit on the Bandolier National Monument escaped control and swept across the Sante Fe National Forest into Los Alamos, where it burned hundreds of homes. Congress responded by increasing the Forest Service's budget by a whopping 38 percent and asking the Forest Service and other federal land agencies to write a national fire plan.
The Forest Service long ago agreed with private landowners that some forests benefit from frequent light fires. But not all do: while 85 percent of the mostly private forests in the South need frequent fires, only about a third of forests in the West, where most federal lands are located, fall into this category. Without making any effort to determine where the money would be most effectively spent, the National Fire Plan simply asked for huge appropriations for treating forests to reduce fire hazards.
More information about “The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future” (and the book itself) is available from:
(Cato Institute, September 2007. Hardcover, 416 pages. ISBN: 1933995076; EAN: 9781933995076.)