Forest Service Chief squanders opportunity to request more funds for treating fuels

Also tells Congress “we’re on the right track with our air tankers”

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Whaley Prescribed Fire Black Hills of South Dakota
The Whaley Prescribed Fire on the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In testimony April 15 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen spoke to members of Congress remotely from a spacious office. She had two clear opportunities to accept or ask for more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. In one case when told by a member of Congress “You’re going to need some more help in the resource department,” she incredibly said, “No.”

Doubling or tripling the treatment of fuels

Later, at 48:00, Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada had been talking about slow, medium, and fast lanes for fuel treatments: “If we want to start getting to the point with the National Forest Lands where we can say our stewardship is in the medium lane as far as fuels management then you’re going to need some more help in the resource department.”

Chief Vicki Christiansen, speaking to the Appropriations committee: “No. What I can speak to Congressman is the science. It is the policy of Congress and the Administration on how fast we go.”

(The Representative then seemed to become a little exasperated, perhaps wanting the Chief to say, “Yes, we could make more progress treating fuels if you could increase our funding.”)

Rep. Mark Amodei: “As a budget reality if this committee wants to help you with fuels, I’m just going to say it — you can disagree with me — we need to do better.”

Chief Vicki Christiansen: “We need to do better. We need to do better. We have more to do to make a difference, a significant difference, on the landscape.”

The need to do more was repeated in another discussion about treating fuels at 57:00. In a discussion with Representative Susie Lee (Nevada) the Chief said their data shows that when a wildfire spreads into an area that has been treated to reduce fuels, 86 percent of the time the fire behavior reduces significantly into a low-intensity fire. Their goal now, she said, is to “treat 40 percent of a fireshed in order to have a resilient forest.”

Rep. Susie Lee: “How realistic is it to be able to treat 40 percent of a fireshed?”

Chief Vicki Christiansen: “Well, that’s why we have to up our game two to three times what we are doing now. ”

Rep. Susie Lee: “OK.”

The Chief did not explain how she is going to increase fuels treatment by “two to three times” on stagnant funding.

Vickie Christiansen Appropriations Committee Forest Service fuels aircraft
Vicki Christiansen testified remotely before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies April 15, 2021.

Funding for aerial firefighting

At 34:05 in the video below Rep. Mike Simpson from Idaho was discussing aerial firefighting, and point blank asked — how much money do you need? She replied at the end of a long, off the subject meandering discourse, “We think we are really on the right track with our air tankers,” without mentioning budget needs.

“One thing I’ve been dealing with,” Rep. Simpson said, “are the aviation assets of the Forest Service… Are we going to have a clear outline for the next 10-year plan for what the Forest Service needs in terms of air assets? How the five and ten year contracts you’re looking at will affect us and benefit us and what we need to put into our budget to so that the Forest Service has the necessary equipment to address these wildfires?”

Chief Vicki Christiansen: “All great questions. But I have to say, you know it was, let me see, 16 years ago I was the new state forester in the state of Washington and my first time before this committee, you were ranking member………. [three and a half minutes later:] Relative to your question about air tankers, the contracting air tanker community has really come on line they are meeting our needs of contemporary air tanker capacity for wildland fire in the U.S. We are studying the question about going to a 10-year contract, what the pros and cons are. We’re nearly complete with that report. It will be going through clearance in a matter of a few days and it will be getting to the committee here shortly. So we’d be glad to discuss more about air tankers. But we think we are really on the right track with our air tankers. And thank you for being such a help and an advocate for getting us get the right resources.”

Rep. Mike Simpson: “Thank you.”

10-year contracts and fuel treatments

In December, 2020 Congress directed the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that considered awarding 10 year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities.

Fire Aviation wrote about these critical issues in December, 2018 and October, 2020. Here is a brief excerpt from the latter:

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

Technology in the Forest Service

In Chief Christiansen’s five-page prepared testimony, several tech-related initiatives were mentioned:

We are also investing in several key technology and modernization portfolios; including, Data Management, Enhanced Real Time Operating Picture, Decision Support Applications, and Modern Tools for a Modern Response. Additionally, implementation of the Large Fire Assessment process, as directed by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (Fiscal Year 2021 Omnibus), is helping us better account for our actions while fostering a learning culture.

Chief Christiansen said (at 18:15 in the hearing) the agency is investing $8 million in a pilot program to utilize a system for tracking the location of firefighters. They are also standing up a program for Unmanned Aerial Systems by purchasing their first 20 aircraft.

The agency has signed an agreement with the Department of Defense and committed funds to access a system that uses satellites to detect fires “which already supported over 500 fires just this year alone in 2021.” She did not say if she was referring to the fiscal year which began October 1 or the calendar year.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

33 thoughts on “Forest Service Chief squanders opportunity to request more funds for treating fuels”

  1. What’s the backstory? There is a huge maze of negotiations that take place between committees and the Chief and her officers. It seems unlikely either committee members or the Chief would use an open hearing to haggle over budget items. It would surprise everyone and not in a good way. On the other hand, the Chief needs to ask for what she needs. The trap is that she no longer has the staff to do the NEPA/NFMA she needs to do to plan and implement more projects than she is currently doing. That effort would result in 30 percent more full-time Agency employees, contractors, and FSTEAMS working overtime for a decade to clear the decks for implementing meaningful fuels reduction. She doesn’t have the inside chops to pull it off, and Congress is not really interested in helping her in places where she actually needs help. They are content to use “restoration wildfire,” letting big fires burn and helping them get much bigger, to meet their internal goals of fuels reduction and reintroducing wildfire to “fire-depleted ecosystems,” in the Chief’s words. Lots cheaper and no hassle with public processes to just light everything on fire and call it good.

  2. It’s a shame that fires coming off Forest Service lands have caused billions of dollars of homes burned, lives ended or ruined, infrastructure destroyed and as the American public look for answers she just says, “We’re good, thanks.”

    Where is the oversight?

    If there was a no-confidence vote for her amongst USFS Fire employees what do you think? 95%?

    1. I am a retired forest supervisor and have experience in both wildfire suppression and fuels management. After retirement I lived in north-central Washington wildfires were a constant threat and during the years I lived there wildfires caused substantial losses in private property and in two cases led to death and injury to USFS fire fighters. The USFS ranger district in that area had an active fuels management program and there were cases when wildfire was slowed by areas that had been treated. However the area being treated needs to be greatly increased if it is to have a significant MPs that on future spread of wildfires in Washington and elsewhere. It appears the Chief is remiss in not asking for more funds to expand the
      fuels mgmt program. However the administration may have directed her to not seek more funds. It wouldn’t the first time that has happened.

  3. Ridiculous. The Chief seems to have no clue where she was being led during this process. The Committee was giving her a barn door sized opening to ask for help, more funds, better staffing – you name it – and she dodged that bullet twice. But thank goodness we have myriad (and increasing) opportunities to put a real focus on intersectionality and social justice…”priorities”. In reply to Smokejumper Bro, I’d say you’re on target with your “no-confidence” estimate.

  4. I would say 99% would vote her out. We need to figure a system out to remove the trash. What a joke.

  5. Unbelievable. What a terrible missed opportunity! I can attest that my national forest (I just retired) in Oregon never has enough fuels money. We begged for more from the Regional Office but were always told the budget was limited and there just wasn’t enough to give all the forests what they needed. She said the FS is following science, but science verifies over and over the need for more fuels work. She admits “we need to do better” yet declines an opportunity for more funding. It’s just baffling.

  6. This was a hearing on the “skinny budget “, real details were not discussed . Rest assured fuels management is an integral part of the agency budget.

  7. Eh, anyone who made it through the Trump era is hardly someone I’d expect to be advocating large increases to funding so the government can do more. If Congress doesn’t like that storyline they’ll pass a bill, hopefully with money attached to change the direction the ship of state is going. Either that of the president has to signal his displeasure with some executive orders telling the forest service to do something different.

    In the meantime was anyone expecting something different from folks out of the Washington Office for some reason?

  8. In my Tweet on this boggling article, I commented, “What could possibly have obsessed this person to have repeatedly rejected legislators’ obvious interest in upping funding? Pyromania?”
    Hate to seem reflexively critical, but where’d they manage to find someone this clueless and inept? Who’s responsible for her being (using the phrase loosely) in charge?

  9. Typical of current and recent FS “leadership” – clueless about managing the natural and human resources under their purview. Pathetic and incompetent are just two of the descriptors that come to mind. Time for this Chief to be shown the door, been there way too long. Let’s hope there’s someone left in the agency who’s come-up thru the ranks with an understanding of the land and respect for their fellow employees. I unfortunately have my doubts…..

  10. Hugh….when are you going to tell us how you really feel ? And here I thought you were up to your neck doing english thesis reviews……lol….

    Seiously…well put…

  11. Surprised she hasn’t been a part of the house cleaning going on in other departments. Maybe Vilsack has a thang for keeping her around.

  12. The Forest Circus….. They WASTE more money and SQUANDER more resources than any other govt agency. I worked for the fs and saw district rangers supervisors and dept. heads get close to the end of the fiscal year and literally THROW MONEY AWAY in order to get 10% more the next year. The agency is Bloated and Ineffective. The entire service needs to be scrapped and have a totally new agency take over.

    1. Read ‘The Tinderbox’ by author Christopher Burchfield. You will find good arguments for scrubbing the present and starting over.

    2. Duane, I want to type Amen to your reply. Yet I find myself continuing my education to seek knowledge of the origin. I have this gut instinct it’s not just what you wrote but bigger. It seems so to me we need to bridge old school ways with new. Some in charge just are timid… AKA snowflakes to do simple assigned positions. So part of me is like the forest circus I want to go hahaha but there’s the other part of me that feels there’s a way even though it seems impossible . ..there’s definitely a way.

  13. Just look at the forest service leadership. It’s all administrative. There seems to have lost the roots and actual boots on the ground knowledge. Without practical experience, how would you expect quality decisions, guidance and leadership.

  14. I listened to the entire hearing and my takeaway was different – the Chief clearly said we need more resources for a paradigm shift in fuel management. Bill should know that the Chief can’t actively solicit Congress for money, and that’s why she’s careful with her words.

    1. There are failures of leadership at all levels. Most line officers have no experience or comprehension of fire – they just want it to go away. Many do not even have a background in natural resource management. Fire management itself seems stuck in the early 20th century – little strategic vision for proactive fire management, mostly tactical and reactive thinking – essentially perpetuating a belief system that fire firefighting somehow brings about benefits to the management of our public and private lands dominated by fire-dependent ecosystems.

      1. Jane G,
        Amen to what you wrote and Riva Duncan and Frank C too.

        Some are inept and clueless in the Fire Industry

        yet there is a birth of new foundations and organizations who are coming to the forefront to do the difficult right things-

        Some really good comments on this post.

        1. Stovepiping everyone into one fire organization is not the answer, at least not an answer I want any part of. All the arguments I’ve heard for it seem to want to take us collectively to be a suppression only focused organization similar to Calfire on a national scale. If we decide to separate ourselves completely from the rest of the management activities I don’t foresee good outcomes for the land.

        2. The 1977 Federal Fire Policy (and all revisions since) explicitly stated that fire management must be more closely blended into land management. We tried the 10AM policy unsuccessfully for decades and didn’t get rid of fires – just made them worse. Suppression ultimately hasn’t protected our wildlands, watersheds, or communities. Fire exclusion has and continues to have severe unintended consequences. It must be replaced with proactive land management including a great deal more beneficial fire. A living example of fire suppression failure is Cal Fire. Single minded, short-sighted, overwhelming force had such great success in 2020.

          1. Beneficial fire on the landscape is a difficult hurdle to clear…the buildout of what was previously wildland into the present day semi-rural (…ie., more homes in the woods) gets in the way of using fire as a tool.
            It’s not going to get better…folks are fleeing their congested urban environments in record #’s here in the u.s.
            As much as I hate to say it….(and see it), there has to be more, and better, land use planning to mitigate this trend. It’s a complex subject and will eventually happen in bits and pieces.
            Yes, there are larger tracts of public land where fire can,( and is), used as a tool.
            But it is not an end all, be all.

            You have overlooked the Alaska Fire Service….it’s about as good of example as you can find in support of consolidating suppression responsibilty under 1 roof.
            I was there for it’s first year of inception almost 40 years ago, and it’s still in place today. One would have thought the Dept. of Interior would/could have used it as a model on interior lands in the western u.s. ???

          2. Exactly. Oh and to respond to Mr Carson’s arguments earlier, I don’t know things seem to be going pretty well down on region 8 with fire. You know leading the country in treated acres every year? You know proactive management? And you know what is very typical there? A small fire crew and heavy militia involvement with an all hands on deck approach. And fire folks doing non fire work in the off season such as timber marking, road work whatever. But what do we know down here? Just a bunch of good old boys right?

    2. I watched the entire hearing and did not see her say they need more resources. Where in the video did you see it?

    3. I agree, Adam. And, I’d add that these hearings are mere formalities, with questions/answers mostly provided in advance. Through the President’s Budget Request (PBR), the FS will have the opportunity to ask for budget adjustments in future years; however, the Congress must understand and act upon that request, and will likely put their own spin on the priorities. I believe the PBR is now available for FY2022. Now is a good time to rejuvenate the conversation with your Senators and Representatives. Changes will be occurring, but solutions won’t happen overnight.

  15. Why did Members not ask the Chief about “actions taken regarding the 8-year AFUE study?
    Why did Members not ask what, specifically, the Chief has accomplished (not studied) with the 90 million acres plus of dead and dying forests?
    And, why did Members not ask how the Chief how she legally justifies spending appropriated dollars for “suppression” when she directs the use of so-called “managed fires” which cost the taxpayers, at a minimum, tens of millions of dollars more? “Managing fires for resource benefits” is not suppression.

  16. The reason we remember Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus 2500 years after he held office was because he was such a rarity – an officeholder devoted to the people who did his best for them during an emergency and then resigned his office as soon as that was done.

    Do we have any such in this century, and nowadays? No wucking fay.

  17. A hearing June 9, 2020 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was very similar. When John Phipps from the USFS was describing in glowing terms the air tanker fleet, Senator Catherine Masto said, “Is there anything we can do at the federal level to assist you in that?” Mr. Phipps said, “Not at this time”.

  18. To her credit, the Chief released a mildly patronizing “if some of you aren’t familiar with the budget process, it’s a little bit complex” statement in response to her failure to recognize that she was essentially being offered the opportunity to ask for more resources and budget dollars from the Committee. While what she says about not being able to directly solicit dollars is true, the barely concealed scoffing (“if you’re paying attention”) at the blowback she received, is as telling a flag regarding current Agency leadership as I’ve ever witnessed. Why any of us are surprised though, is a mystery. If you make it to the WO, you are by definition a political animal, and – like the scorpion that stings the frog, oftentimes simply cannot help themselves.

  19. Please allow me to weigh in on those comments on whether Chief Vicki is able to ask for more funding than is included in initial FY22 President’s Budget Request. Short answer is YES.

    That’s exactly why this hearing and the one from June, 2020 that Gabbert points to take place. Executive branch, agency and department leads go up to the Hill to formally testify before the relevant authorizing and appropriating committees of jurisdiction and plead their case for what’s in the President’s budget request and, if they’re real leaders, plead for something incremental or different than what’s in the fiscal year request.

    Dept of Defense budget hearings are a perfect example. Generals and admirals almost always testify that without xyz funding that’s not fully covered by the budget request they cannot provide assurance from the threat of (insert threat).

    It’s an annual choice that leaders like Chief Vicki have to make — go before Congress and just ask for what the Dept of Agriculture leads told her she’s gonna get within the Ag budget request or be a real leader and say it like it is. Congressman, Senator — neither the wildfire prevention funding request nor the ground and aerial suppression funding request will adequately assure that my department will be effective during fiscal year 2022.

    Sure, maybe Secretary Vilsack calls you later that day and says what the hell! Maybe that puts your cushy role in the USFS bureaucracy at risk. That’s the inflection point that real leaders face. But once again, the USFS chief showed what she’s made of.

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