Senators John Thune (R-S.D.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), and Representative Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) today sent a letter to the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, encouraging the agency to consider the use of the Air Force's soon-to-be retired C-27J aircraft to fight wildland fires in the Rocky Mountain Region, including the Black Hills National Forest. The Air Force plans to divest the C-27J aircraft as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act Implementation Plan.
"Providing the Forest Service with the tools needed to fight wildland fires is critical to protecting some of our country's greatest national treasures and the personal property of those living in the Black Hills area," said Thune. "I urge the Forest Service to consider using these C-27J aircraft to fight wildland fires, and to examine the benefit that operating these aircraft from Ellsworth Air Force Base could have on the surrounding area."
"Acquiring the C-27J from the Air Force could be an innovative way to help the Forest Service meet their need for additional, modernized fire suppression aircraft," said Johnson. "I encourage the Forest Service to evaluate how these aircrafts could help them combat fires in the Black Hills and throughout the country."
"As folks who live in the Black Hills know, a fire is only a spark or lightning strike away. The ongoing pine beetle infestation has only added to this problem," said Noem. "Positioning C-27J aircraft at Ellsworth Air Force Base would provide another resource to protect the people, businesses and communities of the Black Hills and the broader region from catastrophic fires."
According to the Air Force's implementation plan, the Air Force plans to divest up to 21 C-27Js, and the Forest Service has the right of first refusal to acquire these aircraft without additional cost to taxpayers. The delegation's letter urges the Forest Service to consider operating some of these aircraft out of Ellsworth Air Force Base, and highlights the benefits that these aircraft could have in meeting the future needs of the Forest Service, both in South Dakota and in surrounding states.
The text of the delegation's letter follows:
April 16, 2013
Mr. Tom Tidwell
Chief, U.S. Forest Service
Sidney R. Yates Building
201 14th Street, SW, 4th Floor
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Chief Tidwell:
We write today to bring your attention to the Air Force's Fiscal Year 2013, National Defense Authorization Act (FY13 NDAA) Implementation Plan, which includes a section regarding the divestiture of the C-27J Spartan aircraft.
As stated in the implementation plan, the FY13 NDAA "requires the Secretary of Defense to afford the Secretary of Agriculture the first right of refusal" to acquire the aircraft after the C-27J Spartan aircraft are deemed in excess of the needs of the Department of Defense. The C-27J is a new aircraft primarily used for transport by the Air Force, and we understand that these aircraft could assist the U.S. Forest Service when retrofitted to fight wildland fires.
We respectfully encourage you to explore how these aircraft might possibly be used to meet future needs of the Forest Service in its efforts to combat forest fires in the Rocky Mountain Region, including the Black Hills National Forest. As you are aware, South Dakota is home to Ellsworth Air Force Base, located near Rapid City. It may be possible for one or two of these aircraft, which would be operated by the Forest Service, to be based at Ellsworth in order to better serve the surrounding area.
We also understand the Forest Service is in the process of evaluating the existing air fleet to determine future needs and the assets required to meet those demands. As part of that process, please answer the following questions:
What types of aircraft are under consideration for acquisition, and is the C-27J suitable to meet certain anticipated needs of the Forest Service?
Is it correct that the Forest Service has the authority to contract with private entities for the use of large, contractor-owned/contractor-operated air tankers? If so, is this a model the Forest Service intends to continue to use in the future?
Could the acquisition of the C-27J, free of charge from the Air Force, fit that model of contracting with private company third parties for operations and maintenance?
Please keep us informed if there is any way we can be of assistance as the Forest Service determines if these C-27J aircraft can be utilized in a fiscally responsible manner to combat wildland fires.
Senator John Thune
Senator Tim Johnson
Representative Kristi Noem