Updated at 5:34 p.m. MT, May 23, 2011
On May 19, 2011 the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, held a hearing about the U. S. Forest Service Budget. Sitting at the witness table was the Chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell. Two topics related to wildfire management were discussed during the hearing, a major budget cut and the future of the large air tanker fleet.
Reduction in the number of USFS employees:
The budget proposal that the administration has submitted will require the agency to reduce the number of employees by 1,819 permanent full-time positions. It is not clear which programs will be affected by this, in spite of a direct question by Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana. Here is an excerpt from that portion of the hearing’s transcript:
TESTER: OK. Wildland fire management, $400 million — almost $400 million. Fires are a fact of life. But we all know we need to handle them in a way, because there’s a lot of people that live out there, there’s a lot of forest communities.
Can you tell me how that budget’s going to impact firefighting, and in particular if it’s going to have any impact on protecting our forest communities?
TIDWELL: Our proposed budget will provide the same level of preparedness that we’ve had for the last few years, the same number of firefighters, the — the same number of aviation resources.
So where’d the $400 million come from?
TIDWELL: Well, part of it, close to $100 million of those funds, were — are part of the integrated resource restoration budget line item.
TESTER: Which does what?
TIDWELL: Well, part of — that’s for — some of the hazardous fuels funding was moved into IRR.
TESTER: OK. So let’s — let’s just stop there for — for a second. It — it was moved into other accounts, so it’s still going to be funded or it’s not going to be done?
TIDWELL: It’s — majority (inaudible) was moved. There was a $9 million reduction. And that hazardous fuels work that we do outside of the wildland urban interface.
TESTER: Right. Because if there’s more hazardous fuels, it sounds to me — and correct me if I’m wrong — there’s more potential for fire; and you might have the same number of firemen, but you may have more fires.
TIDWELL: That’s — it’s a combination of our approach to be addressing the hazardous fuels, but at the same time providing that level of preparedness. And it — you know, we felt it was essential to maintain almost the same level of fuels work.
TESTER: OK, 1,819 employees will be terminated or not replaced if they retire, however you’re going to do it. And I’m all about making folks lean and mean and — and all that. Can you give me an indication on where those people are going to come from?
TIDWELL: Well, we did project that it’ll be — with this budget proposal, there’s a — will be a loss of about 1,800 permanent full- time positions. That’s about what we — our attrition rate is each year.
So we believe that for this budget proposal, with what we normally see with the number of people that retire or leave the agency, that we’ll be able to — to handle this level of reduction without having to take any actions with any of our employees.
The challenge will be is to — to match up the — you know, the — where we’ve lost the funding in these programs with our existing workforce. But we have — we’ve done a very good job to manage our workforce, I mean, to the point, we have a stable, flat workforce since about 1995.
And we’ve continued to do more and more work through contracting so that we are, I believe, well positioned, because our conservative approach to our workforce over the years, to be able to handle this.
TESTER: Just one last, if I may, Mr. Chairman?
You touched on something that drives me crazy in government, and that we reduce the workforce on one hand and we replace it with contract labor on the other hand. The cost is more than the workforce that existed before. That’s not going to happen here?
TIDWELL: No. No, I — I believe we’ll probably be doing less contract work in 2012 to be able to, you know, maintain our existing workforce. TESTER: OK. Thank you very much.
Large air tankers
The USFS has been studying the issue of replacing the fleet of large air tankers since the “Blue Ribbon Panel”, chaired by former NTSB Chairman James E. Hall, evaluated the air tanker program following the two crashes in 2002 in which the wings fell off very old military surplus aircraft, killing five people. Those crashes resulted in the permanent grounding of about 60 percent of the large air tankers, from 44 in 2002 to the 18 or so we have today.
Now there is still another study going on, this time by the Rand Corporation. It was due in January, 2011, but even Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has had difficulty finding out anything about it. Last week, according to a newspaper article, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, responding three months after her inquiry, said the report would not be completed until August. Will this report simply sit on a shelf next to the last one, or will the USFS actually do something this time?
Referring to the air tanker fleet with an average age of 50 years, in 2009 the USFS said that after 2012 “air tankers currently approved for use by the federal agencies will be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy”.
Below is a discussion during Thursday’s hearing between Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Ranking Member, and Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U. S. Forest Service:
MURKOWSKI: One last question for you, and then I’ll — I’ll quit here, Mr. Chairman.
And this is regarding fire aviation and our tanker replacements. I got a letter from the governor of the state who is concerned about the Forest Service not including any water scooping amphibious aircraft, either the Bombardier or the CL-415s, as you’re look to — to the replacement of the aging firefighting aircraft.
State of Alaska, BLM both seem to really like the water scooping aircraft. They seem to be working well within the state. What is the strategy for — for replacement of the aging air tanker fleet? And where do you see that going?
TIDWELL: Well, I was hoping to have that completed by now. But the RAND Corporation that’s doing the study for us have not completed their work. We’re hoping to get that here in the next month or so.
And so once we receive that, that’ll probably be the last piece of information we need to move forward with our strategy.
And so we want to look at all the various aviation resources that are available. And then also to look at which — which resources should the Forest Service provide, which ones should the Department of the Interior, which ones should our states, our cooperators provide so that we have the right mix of resources.
The scoopers — you know, the Department of Interior, I know, has a couple of those under contract. The state of California often will bring planes down from Canada during their — their fire season. We use those in the Great Lakes sometimes. So I think it’s — it’s one of the tools that just needs to be included in the overall mix of aviation resources.
MURKOWSKI: Do you — do you see a situation where — where private industry could purchase some of — of these aircraft and then work out some kind of a — a leasing arrangement? Is that something that is considered in part of the strategy here?
TIDWELL: Yes, the RAND Corporation will provide their views, their findings on what is the right mix of how many large air tankers, how many small air tankers, what type of — whether they’re water scoopers, they will provide us some insight into that.
And then the other part of it that we’ll have to do is to really look at what is the right way to be able to — to either acquire or maintain these resources. And I believe that we’re going to have to look at every option that we have.
You know, our contractors that are currently providing our large air tankers have done an outstanding job to be able to keep these planes flying with these aging aircraft. And it’s something we’re going to have to — as we move forward, we’re going to have to find, you know, some replacement solutions for — for our large air tankers. We know that.
But there’s — there’s various options, and part of that is definitely to, you know, continue to work with our contractors or with others that want to, you know, get into this business. And so everything’s going to be on the table as we determine what is the most economical way to go forward. And I believe it’ll probably be a mix of probably about every option that we have; is what it’s going to take for us to be able to do this.
MURKOWSKI: Well, I’m glad to think that you’re thinking pretty holistically about how you’re going to have to approach it. I think we recognize that when we’re dealing with these tough budgets, some of these — these line items are going to raise some eyebrows. We know that it’s going to be expensive to — to replace them, but we also know that we have to have them, that this is an asset that’s going to be necessary as we deal with — with the fires, whether they’re up in my state or out in Senator Tester’s part of the — the country.
And we — we recognize the risk that the men and women who are fighting these fires place themselves in. We want to make sure that the aircraft that are working as well are also safe so that we don’t have accidents there. So big balance.
*The BIA contracts for the use of two CL-215 air tankers to support their Midwest and Northwest regions. Voyageurs National Park and other agencies in northern Minnesota (and possibly other states) have borrowed, under mutual aid agreements with Canada, some of them for individual fires. The counties of Los Angeles and San Diego have contracted for them, and the state of North Carolina owned one until they sold it on March 30, 2011 shortly before the Pains Bay fire started. The state of Minnesota owns two CL-215s or Cl-415s.
*This is a correction.
Thanks Dick and Ken