Senate committee questions proposed USFS 2019 budget cuts

By Madilyn Jarman

Caption: The U.S. Forest Service now considers fire years rather than fire seasons because of the increasing frequency of forest fires.

Testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen described next year’s presidential budget request as “a request of very tough choices and trade-offs.”

The fiscal year 2019 presidential budget request includes proposed funding cuts for many Forest Services programs compared to 2018 enacted levels, including a 13 percent cut in forest and rangeland research, a 46 percent cut in state and private forestry, an 11 percent cut to the National Forest System and a 14 percent cut to wildland fire activities. Many of these programs received more funding from Congress in the fiscal year 2018 appropriations omnibus that passed in March.

Wildfires were an important topic in Christiansen’s testimony during the committee’s April 24 hearing. Christiansen said that the agency no longer considers a fire season, but instead refers to a fire year because fires have become more frequent. More frequent fires, invasive species and other environmental stressors are affecting plant communities in several areas, she said, which affect the frequency and behavior of fires. Much of the research the Forest Service performs helps predict which regions are most at risk for fires in a given year.

The budget request designated $2.5 billion for wildland fire management, $190 million more than the levels provided under a February continuing resolution but $375 million less than levels enacted by the 2018 appropriations omnibus. The additional funding was meant to reduce “fire borrowing,” the practice of redirecting discretionary funds to fight fires.

Christiansen discussed the need for tradeoffs several times when senators questioned why the Forest Legacy Program, the Legacy Roads and Trails programs and other programs would be eliminated. She explained that there would not be sufficient resources to support these programs, and the Forest Service must prioritize national forests.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said her state, like 10 others, does not contain National Forests and could be “left out in the cold” if programs that support state and local forestry management were eliminated.

Others, like Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, expressed concerns about reductions to the Forest and Rangeland Research budget, particularly in relation to grazing on federal lands.

Barrasso pointed out that grazing allotments are not available until after environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act are completed, and a lack of resources for research would delay the process more.

Christiansen said the Forest Service had concerns about meeting those needs but would “stay focused and stay prioritized.”

The process would be helped, she said, by efforts to increase the efficiency of environmental assessments by 40 percent by 2020.

The executive budget proposal is the first step in the federal appropriations process. Final funding levels for 2019 will be determined by Congress.

Madilyn Jarman is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Madilyn's articles.