On Tuesday, April 9, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Victoria Christiansen testified before the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the agency’s fiscal year 2019-20 (which begins October 1) request.
Nearly 80 million acres, 40 percent of the National Forest System, “are at moderate to high risk from catastrophic fire,” Christiansen began her testimony.
Despite this threat and others, such as drought and invasive species, she is confident that new Congressional authorities and the President’s budget request will protect and improve the national forests.
Shared stewardship agreements with state, local and private parties will be the tool the Forest Service engages to bring productive change to the land it manages.
“Shared stewardship is fast becoming our preferred mode of doing work,” Christiansen told the committee.
The Forest Service total request of $5.7 billion focuses on reducing wildfire risk, improving forest conditions, and contributing to rural economies,” she said.
The “fire fix,” which will fund fire suppression costs in a manner similar to other natural disasters, eliminates the Forest Services historical process of taking funding from other programs, like recreation, to fund suppression costs.
“Now we no longer sacrifice critical work to pay for firefighting,” Christiansen promised the committee.
The proposed budget requests $1.3 billion for fire preparedness, $1 billion in direct funding and another $1.95 billion for fixed cap adjustments, totaling nearly $3 billion for fire suppression. In addition, another $450 million has been requested to continue work on hazardous fuels reduction projects.
In addition to the committee chair, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and ranking minority member, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), eight senators attended the hearing and asked questions of Christiansen.
Most of the questions addressed issues specific to Forest Service plans or national forests within their states. For example, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) asked about the fire potential outlook for Washington. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) questioned Christiansen about management of the Arizona forests.
But several senators were concerned that the Forest Service budget request included no money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for land acquisition. They reminded Christiansen that the Fund has just been renewed and the President hosted a signing ceremony at the White House.
“We hear a lot of talk about the LWCF, but the budget is zero,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) lamented. And Christiansen replied, “It is very difficult to make trade-offs with this budget submission.”
Murkowski and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) were both disappointed that a promised study of the effectiveness of air tankers used to fight wildfires is still incomplete after seven years.
Christiansen said it was difficult to gather the data directly during the fires, but expected a draft this year.
Gardner commented, “There’s a technical term for that: ‘Bunk.’”
Murkowski asked Christiansen to bring information on the study to the hearing on the 2019 fire outlook next month.