UPDATE at 9:57 a.m. MT, June 8, 2012: When we wrote this article yesterday the text of the bill was not available. Now it is and we included it below (We added the link to the solicitation):
Notwithstanding the last sentence of section 3903(d) of title 41, United States Code, the Chief of the Forest Service may award contracts pursuant to Solicitation Number AG-024B-S-11-9009 for large air tankers earlier than the end of the 30-day period beginning on the date of the notification required under the first sentence of section 3903(d) of that title.
UPDATE at 7:46 p.m. MT, June 7, 2012: the Associated Press is reporting that the Senate passed the bill today. The U.S. Forest Service told Congress that they have made a decision about new air tanker contracts but have to wait until late June to award them. It is very surprising a body of Congress can pass this bill three days after it was introduced. The bill now goes over to the House of Representatives.
Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico introduced a bill on June 4 that would speed the contracting of air tankers. Currently there is a requirement that Congress be notified 30 days before certain contracts are awarded. This bill, S. 3261, would partially waive that requirement, making it possible for the U.S. Forest Service to issue federal contracts for at least seven large air tankers before the end of that 30-day period.
Below is video of Senator Wyden speaking on the Senate floor on June 5, in which he addresses the Tanker 11 fatalities, the crash of Tanker 55, the shortage of air tankers, and the bill he just introduced. The text of his remarks as prepared can be found HERE.
If Senator Wyden’s legislative record during this term in the Senate is any indication, it is unlikely the bill will be passed. He has sponsored 73 bills, none of which were made into law. Of the 209 bills he co-sponsored, one became law.
Some would say the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management staff, instead of looking for ways to speed up the air tanker contracting process, is instead, searching desperately for ways to slow the process to a crawl, so they don’t have to actually make a decision.
Colorado Senator Mark Udall has been vocal on the issues of bark beetles and air tankers, and on April 12 wrote a letter to Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell expressing his concerns about the state of the aging fleet of air tankers. In the letter he said:
Though air tankers are only one part of the wildfire-response effort, they play a critical role in the initial attack. With an aging fleet that has dwindled from 44 air tankers in 2002 to 11 this year, and will continue to decline in the years to come, I am unconvinced the USFS’s current air tanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season…
Talk is cheap. Introducing a bill, asking questions, or writing a letter, is easy, but turning it into action is another story. Several Senators talk tough in hearings about the air tanker fiasco, but they don’t pass bills funding any changes that would benefit the program. Other Senators that have questioned the U.S. Forest Service’s management of the air tanker program include Jon Kyl, AZ; Lisa Murkowski, AK; Jeff Bingaman, NM; Ron Wyden, OR; Mark Udall, CO; Jon Tester, MT; and Dianne Feinstein, CA.
The only way the air tanker program will see any long term meaningful changes will be if Congress forces it upon the U.S. Forest Service. These Senators should know that talking tough, issuing press releases, and writing letters to Tom Tidwell is not adequate. A successful strategy in wars and for initial attack on wildfires is overwhelming force. That is what it will take in this case.