On wildfire funding, the Forest Service is like the dog that caught the car
The Palmer Gulch Fire burns in October 2022 in the Black Hills. (Courtesy of Black Hills National Forest)
Watching congressional hearings is a really interesting way to find things out that you may otherwise never hear about. Over the past couple of months, there have been Senate hearings for the farm bill with the U.S. Forest Service’s Associate Chief Angela Coleman, and Senate Appropriations hearings with Chief Randy Moore. Particularly interesting was the April 18 meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, focusing on the fiscal year 2024 budget request for the Forest Service.
A common theme of all of these hearings is holding the Forest Service accountable to increase timber outputs. Numerous bills have been proposed to hold the Forest Service’s feet to the fire — too many to even mention here. It’s interesting that this is coming from Republicans, Democrats and an independent. They all want to know what the Forest Service is doing with the billions of dollars that have been appropriated to it in the recent past, and why timber outputs have not seen a resulting increase. They all express a concern in dealing with the wildfire crisis.
Chief Moore primarily gives three reasons why there has not been a dramatic increase and why the target for timber volume sold was not met last fiscal year. We all know the old metaphor that you don’t turn an aircraft carrier on a dime, and in this instance, the Forest Service is the aircraft carrier. Moore says that both wildfires and storms wreaked havoc on areas that were planned for timber sales, and this drastically impacted target accomplishments.
He went on to say that the Forest Service is having real difficulty in hiring. The process is not working well and continues to be cumbersome. Also, the agency is losing employees through attrition, almost as quick as it can hire them. He said pay levels are a problem, as well as housing in the locations where the agency needs people to work. It’s interesting that Moore did not mention the National Environmental Policy Act and lawsuits as reasons for the lack of target accomplishment.
Is it finally time to admit that centralizing human resources and other Forest Service business activities at the Albuquerque Service Center was a big mistake? Previously, the Forest Service had a relatively well-oiled hiring machine. I believe it could have held its own in comparison to most other federal agencies. Moore oversees the center, so if it has serious problems, then he needs to fix it. It would take a lot to finally admit the center was a mistake, but maybe that’s what needs to happen.
With regard to housing, the Forest Service used to be in the business of providing housing, but then it was seen as time to move on from that. Much of the government housing was sold off. Now that’s not looking like such a great decision.
Moore says the Forest Service has a plan to get up to 4 billion board feet of timber by fiscal year 2027. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, stated that Eisenhower took Europe in 11 months, and asked why it would take the Forest Service so long to get to 4 billion board feet. Interesting question. It’s also interesting that almost all of these senators expressed concerns about wildfires, but there was little said about increasing prescribed fire or pre-commercial thinning (to thin out the forest, thereby mitigating the severity of wildfires and encouraging the growth of the remaining trees). If they were truly interested in reducing wildfire threats, there could be a whole lot of mitigation through those two methods in comparison to cutting sawtimber-sized trees.
The Forest Service is in a tough spot. For years it stated that if it was just provided with enough money (Moore states that the agency still needs more) it could address the wildfire crisis. That’s like the dog who never expected to catch the car, and when it finally did, it didn’t know what to do with it.
Moore received some hard questions in the hearing. I felt a little sorry for him. He can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat and fix the wildfire crisis overnight, but the Forest Service needs to be upfront about what it can actually do and what the realistic timeframes will be.
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