U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell highlighted the exceptional value that the Forest Service provides the American public in testimony today before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
In his testimony on the fiscal year 2014 budget request, Tidwell said the Forest Service is focusing its efforts on three key areas: restoring ecosystems, strengthening communities while providing jobs and managing wildland fires.
The President’s proposed overall budget for discretionary funding for the Forest Service in fiscal year 2014 is $4.9 billion. It shifts $62 million from key programs to meet the requirement to fund the 10-year rolling average of fire suppression costs.
“The key to future success is to work through partnerships and collaboration,” said Tidwell. “Our budget priorities highlight the need to strengthen service through cooperation, collaboration and public-private partnerships that leverage our investments to reach shared goals. Through this approach, we can accomplish more work while also providing more benefits for all Americans.”
The U.S. Forest Service has made significant improvements in the pace and scale of its restoration projects. On National Forest System lands, approximately 80 million acres are in need of restoration treatments. Last year, more than 3.7 million acres of restoration treatments were completed on watersheds, forest and wildlife habitats.
The Forest Service is on pace to increase acres treated and harvest a projected 3 billion board feet by the end of 2014 — an increase of 20 percent.
Reforestation, habitat enhancements, invasive species control, hazardous fuels treatments and other measures can help to make an ecosystem more resilient and more capable of delivering benefits, such as protecting water supplies and supporting native fish and wildlife. The Forest Service budget request for fiscal year 2014 is specifically designed to support integrated restoration efforts across the agency.
More than half of America’s fresh water flows from public and private forest land, and about 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on the national forests and grasslands. The Forest Service estimates that watershed functionality is impaired or at risk on 48 percent of the watersheds on national forests and grasslands.
Strengthening Communities and Providing Jobs
Working with state and local partners, the Forest Service is focusing on landscape-scale outcomes across agency boundaries to include forestry projects identified by states. A new program called Landscape Scale Restoration will capitalize on state partnerships to target the forested areas most in need of restoration treatments while leveraging partner funds.
In fiscal year 2012, the Forest Service entered into more than 7,700 grants and agreements with partners who contributed a total of about $535 million in cash and non-cash (in-kind) contributions. Combined with Forest Service contributions of nearly $779 million, the total value of these partnerships was over $1.3 billion.
In fiscal year 2011, the various activities on the National Forests and grasslands contributed more than $36 billion to America’s gross domestic product, supporting nearly 450,000 jobs.
Managing Wildland Fires
Forest Service restoration efforts are partly in response to growing fire season severity. The agency continues to suppress 98 percent of the fires on initial attack. However, the few fires that escape initial attack tend to get much larger much faster.
The spread of homes and communities into areas prone to wildfire is an increasing management challenge. From 2000 to 2030, the agency expects to see substantial increases in housing density on 44 million acres of private forest land nationwide.
The agency’s fire strategy has three components:
- Restoring fire-adapted ecosystems. More than a thousand postfire assessments show that fuels and forest health treatments are effective in reducing wildfire severity. The agency focuses treatments on high-priority areas in the wildland/urban interface, particularly near communities that are taking steps to become safer from wildfire, such as adopting the national Firewise program or developing community wildfire protection plans.
- Building fire-adapted human communities. With more than 70,000 communities at risk from wildfire, the Forest Service is working through cross-jurisdictional partnerships to help communities become safer from wildfires. Through the Firewise program, the number of designated Firewise communities—communities able to survive a wildfire without outside intervention—rose from 400 in 2008 to more than 700 in 2012.
- Responding appropriately to wildfire. Most of America’s landscapes are adapted to fire. Wildland fire plays a natural and beneficial role in many forest types. Where suppression is needed to protect homes and property, the Forest Service focuses on deploying the right resources in the right place at the right time. Using decision support tools, fire managers are making risk-based assessments to decide 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.
Airtankers are a critical part of an appropriate response to wildfire, but the Forest Service’s fleet of large airtankers is old, with an average age of more than 50 years. The cost of maintaining them is growing, as are the risks associated with using them. The Forest Service is implementing a Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy to replace its aging fleet with next-generation airtankers. The fiscal year 2014 budget request includes $50 million to pay for the increased costs of modernizing the firefighting airtanker fleet. This is in addition to the $24 million requested in the 2013 budget for a total of $74 million proposed over the last two years to further enhance the agency’s ability to fight wildland fire.
The Forest Service is also taking steps in other areas to cut our operating costs.
Taking advantage of new technologies, the Forest Service has streamlined and centralized its financial, information technology, and human resources operations to gain efficiencies and reduce costs.
In fiscal year 2012, the Forest Service began implementing a new planning rule that will reduce the length of time it takes to revise management plans, saving costs. The agency is also saving costs by streamlining its environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The agency is implementing measures to achieve $100 million in cost pool savings in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 combined.
The agency has also adopted new public-private partnership strategies for leveraging restoration funding. For example, over 10 years the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program is expected to leverage $152.3 million in partner funding, about 62 cents for every federal dollar spent.
The mission of the 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. Forest Service lands contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $27 billion per year.