President reduces budget request for U.S. Forest Service

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In his first budget submission for the U.S. Forest Service, President Donald Trump has recommended cutting the funding level nearly $100 million, from $4.8 billion for the current year to $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2017-18, which begins Oct. 1.

This does not include the $820,000 elimination of the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement wildfire suppression reserve. The budget justification states that the FLAME funds are not really reserves and create inefficiencies with use of the appropriate funding for fire suppression.

Consequently, the president’s proposal provides wildfire funding equal to the 10-year average of $1.057 billion. This is about $250 million more than the fiscal year 2016-17 funding levels. However, staffing for the activity has been reduced 2 percent, or the equivalent of 60 full-time staff, from the 2017 level of 3,100.

The budget also proposes shifting about $250 million from suppression funding to preparedness. This is simply a shift of salary costs for full-time firefighters and not a programmatic increase.

Beginning in fiscal year 2017-18, FS firefighters will charge the first eight hours of each day to preparedness funding and, when fighting fires, charge any hours more than eight to suppression funding, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the Interior Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

The other change in wildfire budget is the shift of funding for reduction of hazardous fuels to the National Forest System account. The program’s funding level of $354 million is $20 million less than last year.

According to the agency’s budget justification, this shift was done because “… most hazardous fuels work takes place on NFS lands, the agency will be able to administer this program more efficiently and effectively if managed as part of the National Forest System.”

“The budget for wildland fire management will fund up to 20 airtankers under exclusive-use contracts,” Tidwell said in his prepared testimony.

However, all other programs within this account were reduced except for law enforcement, which was increased $2.7 million to a total of $129.2 million. Forest Health Management was decreased $9 million to $81 million. This activity funds the forests’ protection from insects, invasive plants and diseases.

Other major changes in the FS budget request include a reduction in the Capital Improvements and Maintenance funding from $363 million last year to about $100 million for fiscal year 2017-18. Tidwell suggested that an infrastructure initiative, which the administration may propose, might include funding for capital projects in the national forests.

Land Acquisition was funded at $8 million compared to $63 million in fiscal year 2016-17. Also, forest research was cut $31 million to $259 million.

The FS’s budget submission does not include proposed legislation to resolve the long-term wildfire funding issues, Tidwell said. But it does include language for a one-year reauthorization of the recreation fees legislation.

“The Forest Service receives approximately $65 million annually in recreation fee revenue. Ninety-five percent of the recreation fees collected on a national forest stay at that national forest to be reinvested in recreation sites and services,” Tidwell said. “If [the authorization] expires … agencies will have no recreation fee authority for operations and maintenance of recreation facilities or for payment for the National Recreation Reservation System.”

Congress is expected to pass appropriation bills later this month or in September before the new fiscal year begins.

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