Helena Independent Record: Montana senators grill Forest Service chief on wildfire, trails funding

Montana’s senators questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell Wednesday on challenges to forest management reform, wildfire funding and declining trail budgets.

Tidwell testified before the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which counts both Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester among its members. The hearing focused on the Forest Service’s $4.8 billion budget request for the next fiscal year, including a small increase for Land and Water Conservation Fund and increased fuels reduction spending authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

The budget “represents some really tough choices and where we can prioritize our limited funding,” Tidwell said, pointing to a nearly 40 percent cut in nonfire staffing and continually increasing firefighting costs.

In 1995, fire budgets accounted for 16 percent of the budget. Last year it topped 50 percent. By 2025, analysts estimate wildfire taking 67 percent of the budget, Tidwell testified.

The fire budget woes come on top of the continued needs for restoration and mitigation, suppression of invasive weeds and expanding current and new markets for federal timber, he said.

“I’ve been pleased with what we’re getting done on the ground, but we’re kind of to the breaking point,” Tidwell said of funding and staffing.

Both Daines and Tester noted their frustration with the backlog of needed restoration and mitigation projects and the pace with which the agency is addressing identified areas of need.

In Montana, Daines pointed to the 5 million acres prioritized under the Farm Bill for expedited forestry projects, but the only 6,200 acres of projects slated for this year. In an effort to expedite forestry projects, the Farm Bill allows the Forest Service to categorically exclude certain projects in identified areas of need from full environmental review.

“These are dead and dying trees,” Daines said, adding his concern that the Forest Service was not following congressional urging to tackle more acreage.

Daines said he was happy to hear from Tidwell that the Forest Service plans to spend nearly double the legislative directive on Farm Bill projects, saying in a post-hearing interview that increased spending was “a step in the right direction.”

As employees get more comfortable using the authorities and the agency makes more “good neighbor” agreements with states, Tidwell expects the number of projects and acreage to increase.

“As we look at the overall acreage we still have a long ways to go,” Daines said.

Wildfire costs are on the rise due to longer fire seasons and an increasing number of homes in the wildland-urban interface requiring expensive protection measures, Tidwell said.

When asked by Tester, Tidwell replied that about 50 million acres fall in the interface, while the Forest Service mitigates about 1.5 million acres annually and a total of 10 million acres addressed to date. Mitigated areas then need future maintenance, he said.

Tester’s final point during the hearing addressed the announcement that Montana will receive a 30 percent cut to trail budgets over the next three years. The cuts come as the Forest Service moved to prioritize population and visitor days over wilderness trail miles in its funding allocation model.

Tidwell maintained that every trail mile is important, but the funding allocations come from his staff’s efforts to look for the highest priority areas in the face of lower budgets but increasing demands.

“The fact is if we’re going to continue to grow our outdoor economy those trails are pretty damn important,” Tester said. “We have a million people in Montana but far more people visit our state because of our access to our public lands.”

Tidwell indicated that staff was taking a second look at the new allocations, but until wildfire costs are addressed, “I won’t have a very positive answer for you,” he told Tester.

Daines also encouraged Tidwell to reconsider the cuts, saying he personally enjoys public land trails while calling the cuts “disproportionate.”

In a post-hearing conference call with reporters, Daines renewed his call for forest management reforms, including discouraging litigation while incentivizing collaboration, tied to a new funding model for funding wildfires.

Reforming the current practice of “fire borrowing,” or taking funds from other programs when fire costs exceed budgets, has been a focus of Montana’s delegation and many other lawmakers. A popular idea would fund fires that exceed budgets as natural disasters, eliminating the need to borrow.

Reforms to wildfire funding and forest management failed to pass last year, but Daines believes there is an appetite among lawmakers to push the legislation this year and his colleagues are growing tired of repeated inaction.

When asked if he believes that tying the more controversial forest management reforms to popular wildfire funding reforms hurt the latter during last year’s negotiations, Daines says he sees increasing support for both. Comprehensive reform means addressing both the frontend need to increase the pace and scale of projects as well as the backend wildfire costs.

“It’s like Groundhog Day in Washington, D.C. … We can’t continue to let our forest burn and breath the air when we have standing dead timber. It’s continuing to grow to a critical mass of senators from both sides of the aisle,” he said.