Thomas Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testified March 26 at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The primary purpose of the hearing was the Forest Service budget for Fiscal Year 2016, but there were many questions from the Senators about other issues.
There were no earth-shaking revelations in the hearing about wildland fire, and few deeply probing questions from the Senators on the subject. Contrary to the recent annual hearings like this, there was no lengthy discussion about air tankers.
The video from the hearing is available at the Committee’s web site. The hearing begins at 12:30. I skimmed through all of it and identified sections that had some of the more interesting remarks about wildland fire.
From 1:13:15 until 1:19:30 Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon asked some fire-related questions, mostly about the fire borrowing problem.
From 2:05:15 until 2:07:19 Washington’s Senator Maria Cantwell asked that Chief Tidwell work with the Department of Homeland Security to make it possible to use drones, especially on fires. This is the first I have heard that the DHS is regulating drones. The Chief responded that they are working with the DHS and the FAA on the issue.
A surprising topic was the permitting system for photography on national forests, from 2:23:40 until 2:33:15. The Chair of the Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, strongly made the point that the very poorly written and ambiguous proposed rule that would govern the use of still and video photography in U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas, needed to be fixed. We last wrote about this issue September 26, 2014. Among other disturbing features of the rules is that an application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area” for the photography. Employees at the local National Forest get to use their photographic editing and filmmaking skills to make that determination, overruling the knowledge, desires, and experience of the photographer. Yesterday Chief Tidwell basically said the same thing, that if an alternative location is available, the photographer should use that, rather than the location identified by the photographer or filmmaker.
Credit goes to Senator Murkowski for strongly advocating that low impact photography in national forests should not be restrained by ridiculous Forest Service rules. She kept pressing for a date by which the revised final rules would be issued, and the Chief said “sometime this year”.
Below is a section out of Chief Tidwell’s lengthy written testimony related to wildland fire. Thankfully, he did not read the eight-page document.
“….Managing Wildland Fires
Increasingly severe fire seasons are one of the greatest challenges facing the Nation’s forests. The Forest Service will continue to collaborate with its Federal, State, local, and Tribal governments, partners, and stakeholders on the implementation of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed, use fire where allowable, manage our natural resources and, as a Nation, live with wildland fire.
The Forest Service has one of the most effective fire organizations in the world and continues to keep almost 98 percent of the wildfires we fight very small. However, the few fires that do escape initial response tend to grow much larger far more quickly than ever before. In addition, the cost of fire suppression has soared in the past 20 years.
We are again proposing a revised funding strategy for wildfire suppression. The FY 2016 President’s Budget proposes discretionary funding for suppression at a level represented by 70 percent of the 10-year average of fire suppression costs. This level of funding provides for suppression of 99 percent of the fires we fight1. In addition, up to $855 million would be made available under a disaster funding cap adjustment to meet funding needs for fire suppression above the base appropriation. This strategy would provide increased certainty in addressing growing needs for fire suppression funding while better protecting non-suppression programs from funding transfers that diminish their effectiveness. Moreover, it would allow us to stabilize our investments in restoring forested landscapes, helping forests adapt to the growing effects of climate change, and preparing communities in the wildland/urban interface for future wildfires.
Restoring Fire-Adapted Ecosystems
Fire plays a beneficial role in maintaining the ecological stability of many landscapes, and the Forest Service is working with partners to restore healthy, resilient, fire-adapted ecosystems. Our goal, especially near homes and communities, is to prepare forests and grasslands to resist stresses such as drought and recover from disturbances, including wildfires. Our large-scale restoration projects are designed in part to restore fire-adapted forest types across large landscapes, including the reintroduction of periodic wildland fire where safe and effective.
Developing new markets for the low-value woody materials we remove during restoration and hazardous fuels treatments will help offset the costs of these activities while providing new revenue streams for private landowners. Therefore, this remains a top priority for the Forest Service. We will continue to provide grants and other forms of assistance for wood-to-energy initiatives, and to help projects compete for other sources of funding. We will also provide technical assistance to help facilities that convert wood to energy become or remain financially viable.
Building Fire-Adapted Human Communities
More than 46 million homes in the United States, or about 40 percent of our Nation’s housing units, are located in fire-prone parts of the wildland/urban interface. We will continue providing scientific and analytical support to help these communities become fire-adapted. This work includes completing hazardous fuels treatments, preparing community wildfire protection plans, becoming designated as Firewise Communities through the national Firewise program, and obtaining equipment to respond to and mitigate wildfire. Our goal is to encourage communities to adapt to wildland fire by establishing an effective emergency response plan and managing risk in a way that protects lives, property, and wildland resources. The FY 2016 President’s Budget proposes funding the corresponding Research and Development program at nearly $20 million and the Joint Fire Science Program at nearly $7 million, both about equal to the FY 2015 enacted levels.
We will control fuels in the wildland/urban interface by removing buildups of dead vegetation and thinning overly dense forests. We will focus on treating high-priority areas, including municipal watersheds to protect water supplies. The FY 2016 President’s Budget proposes $359 million for our Hazardous Fuels program, approximately the same as the FY 2015 enacted level.
Responding Appropriately to Wildfire
Where suppression is needed to protect homes and property, we will continue to deploy resources at appropriate places and times. Fire managers are using improved decision support tools to make risk-based assessments about when and where to suppress a fire—and when and where to use fire to achieve management goals for long-term ecosystem health and resilience. Our primary goal is always to protect life and property. Our collaborative interagency emergency response capacity, executed in cooperation with law enforcement, helps us accomplish this by focusing on preparedness for wildfire and other natural disasters and assuring an appropriate risk-based response.
We will continue to maintain an appropriate level of preparedness. Our Preparedness program has proven its worth. Fire Program Analysis, a strategic management tool, shows that every $1.00 subtracted from preparedness funding adds $1.70 to suppression costs because of small fires that escape to become large fires. Maintaining an adequate level of preparedness will reduce overall fire management costs. The FY 2016 President’s Budget proposes $1.08 billion in Preparedness funding.
We will continue pursuing our Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy. Airtankers play a crucial role in keeping fires small. In FY 2016, the Forest Service expects to have up to 21 airtankers available. Fifteen will be next generation and six will be legacy. One of the 15 will be a Forest Service C-130H. Our strategy is to fund both the older aircraft still in operation (needed as we transition to newer aircraft) and the next-generation airtankers currently under contract.
We will also continue leveraging State and local firefighting resources by providing State and volunteer fire assistance. State and local fire departments are the first responders to almost 75 percent of the Nation’s wildfires, so investing in their capacity is a high priority for the Forest Service. Federal grants are matched dollar for dollar, extending the value of our investments. We propose funding the State Fire Assistance Program at $78 million and the Volunteer Fire Assistance Program at $13 million, both nearly equal to the FY 2015 enacted levels.”