Forest Service Chief Cites Conservation Opportunities, Challenges in Senate Hearing

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell addressed today the challenges and opportunities facing the agency’s forest management efforts in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“We must manage and restore more acres to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, to address insects and disease, and to restore the ecological health of forests for the benefit of all Americans,” said Tidwell. “We know we cannot achieve all of this without a strong integrated forest products industry that can use all parts and sizes of trees to help us accomplish our restoration work.”

More than 40 percent of the continental United States is in a moderate or severe stage of drought — with 4 percent of those areas experiencing exceptional drought conditions. Insects and disease have weakened the resilience of America’s forests, and approximately 80 million acres of trees are projected to be at risk of severe mortality.

Tidwell said the Forest Service continues to explore new and existing tools to become more efficient on the 193 million acres it manages. In February 2012, the Forest Service outlined a strategy for increasing restoration activities across large landscapes through more efficient implementation of existing programs and policies, as well as pursuing new initiatives. Through these efforts, in fiscal year 2012, the agency attained 2.6 billion board feet volume sold, and exceeded a number of restoration targets such as moving nine watersheds to an improved condition class, decommissioning 2,103 miles of roads, and restoring or enhancing 3,704 miles of stream habitat.

Restoring the health and resilience of the nation’s forests generates important amenity values.  For example, through implementation of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program — which relies heavily on stewardship contracting — projects on national forests and grasslands maintained 4,174 jobs and generated more than $147 million in labor income in fiscal year 2012. 

The agency is saving costs by gaining efficiencies in its environmental review process under the National Environmental Protection Act. Process improvements will result in on-the-ground restoration work getting done more quickly and across a larger landscape. 

For example, the Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project on the Black Hills National Forest is implementing a landscape-scale adaptive approach for treating current and future pine beetle outbreaks within a 200,000 acre area. Since signing the decision in December 2012, the forest has held one timber sale and has two others planned for this fiscal year. Sales for next fiscal year are identified, along with plans to treat existing and newly infested areas in subsequent years. This decision has given the forest greater flexibility in treating existing and new infestations in a timely and strategic manner. All of these efforts are aimed at becoming more proactive and efficient in protecting the nation’s natural resources, while providing jobs to the American people.

The Forest Service is reviewing its business practices around timber sale preparation, specifically regarding designation of timber for harvest and accounting for merchantable volume, to reduce the cost to the government for selling timber.

Although timber sales remain the mainstay of Forest Service restoration efforts, Tidwell told the Senate committee that stewardship contracting is another critical tool that allows the agency to more efficiently complete restoration activities. Permanently reauthorizing stewardship contracting and expanding the use of this tool is crucial to the agency’s ability to collaboratively restore landscapes at a reduced cost to the government by offsetting the value of the services received with the value of forest products removed.  In fiscal year 2012, 25 percent of all timber volume sold was under a stewardship contract. Stewardship contracting authorities allow the agency to fund watershed and wildlife habitat improvement projects, invasive species removal, road decommissioning and hazardous fuels reduction activities. 

Through the recession and downturn in the housing market, the Forest Service has continued to find ways to support local infrastructure.  The agency increased its funding of the timber sale program over the last 17 years from a low of $180 million in 1995 to $335 million in 2012. The agency provided timber sale contract relief through price adjustments and contract extensions, and continued to sell timber at a lower price reflecting market values. Industry continued to purchase Forest Service timber at these lower prices, providing more flexibility through combining these lower-priced sales with earlier, higher-priced sales.

Wood energy projects make forest harvests more economically viable by providing a productive use for woody biomass which previously was a cost to remove. The USDA Wood to Energy Initiative combines programs from the Forest Service and USDA Rural Development to expand renewable wood energy use, from rural community schools, hospitals and National Guard facilities across the country.

At the completion of fiscal year 2012, the Forest Service was on a trajectory to increase acres treated and timber harvested.  In 2013, the agency received a reduced budget. It has had to revise down the amount of acres it could treat, along with timber volume to reflect these budget reductions. 

In addition to declining budgets, the Forest Service is facing another active fire year. Costs of fire suppression have increased to consume nearly half of the entire agency budget. Since fiscal year 2000, the 10-year average has risen almost every year — from a little more than $540 million to more than $1 billion in 2010.

Staffing within the agency has also shifted to reflect an increased focus on fire. Since 1998, fire staffing within the Forest Service has increased 110 percent from 5,700 in 1998 to more than 12,000 in 2012. Over the same time period, staffing levels for those dedicated to managing national forests and grasslands have decreased by 35 percent from more than 17,000 in 1998 to 11,000 in 2012. Forest management staffing has decreased by 49 percent from more than 6,000 in 1998 to 3,200 in 2012.

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.

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