Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson today blasted a Forest Service budget proposal that cut funding for active forest management in favor of funding the fire budget and new land acquisition. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified on the budget in front of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which Simpson chairs. The hearing covered a variety of issues, including fire borrowing, Secure Rural Schools, and the states' role in managing public lands.
Chairman Simpson started the hearing by expressing his concern about the impact that the forest fire budget has on the ability of the Forest Service to manage healthy forests. Because the Forest Service must borrow from other accounts to pay for fire costs when those costs exceed the agency's budget, the Service's ability to prevent catastrophic fires in the future could be jeopardized. Simpson noted that today only 30% of the Forest Service's budget is dedicated to actually managing the national forests, compared to 70% in the mid-1980's. "Every time I'm in Idaho I hear from Forest Supervisors, District Rangers, and other Forest Service employees that they cannot manage their forests with the shrinking amount of funding they receive," he said.
Simpson noted that the Senate's decision to strip funding intended to reimburse the agency for fire borrowing during the devastating 2012 fire season left the Forest Service with holes to fill in FY14 but expressed concern about the fire budget in the President's request. "The Senate's decision not to fund fire in the CR did not do you any favors, but this budget proposal doesn't seem to help you either," said Simpson. "Generally, we know that projects reducing the threats of catastrophic fire also create jobs, generate revenue for the Treasury and reduce future fire suppression expenditures. So I am extremely disheartened by the dramatic cuts in hazardous fuels funding. It seems like this budget has enacted fire borrowing before it is needed, stripping funding from other accounts to put it into fire fighting. That concerns me."
"These cuts have real consequences," he continued, "and they will be felt acutely in communities that depend on public lands for their economic vitality and way of life. In many counties in my district and across the country, public lands make up the vast majority of the land base and are one of the only sources of income for residents. [Yet this] budget proposes to cut recreation, livestock grazing, minerals and energy, and forest products. Essentially the Administration is cutting the programs that have the most positive impact on the economy."
During the hearing, Simpson also expressed support for extending the Secure Rural Schools program, which provides an alternative source of education funding for counties with a high percentage of national forests or federal land, and encouraged the Forest Service to partner with states to improve forest management. "States have public forests and therefore foresters and public land managers who are already doing some of this work right next to national forests," said Simpson. "I think there needs to be some way to improve the relationship between the Forest Service and the states so you can partner with state foresters to get some of this work done."