By Kiera Quigley
Last week, Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen went before two panels of lawmakers in the Senate and House to discuss wildfire and forest management on federal lands.
In the June 5 hearing, held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss the 2018 wildfire outlook and the federal government's wildfire management programs, Christiansen recapped last year's fire season stats: 42 Americans were killed in wildfires, including 14 wildland firefighters, and $2.9 billion was spent by the federal government on wildfire suppression (while states contributed another $1.4 billion to fight 2017's flames).
This year looks to be another challenging one for wildfire, she explained, but the Forest Service believes that it has adequate resources to address wildfire activity. Currently, the agency has more than 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines, and hundreds of aircraft at the ready. Christiansen also touted the authorities Congress provided her agency in the 2018 omnibus as critical tools for fighting wildfire more efficiently.
Two days later on June 7, Christiansen testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands on the Forest Service's management priorities. During the hearing, subcommittee members questioned Chief Christiansen about her plans to boost timber harvesting on national forests and achieve better outcomes this fire year. A common theme in all of the chief’s answers was the importance of working across boundaries.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., expressed concern for the safety of his constituents living within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and asked Christiansen if Congress could encourage a smarter approach to development in the WUI. In response, Chief Christiansen emphasized the role of state and local entities in creating more fire-resilient communities. "We have to work on both sides of the boundary," she explained. The Forest Service partners with state agencies to provide technical assistance to local communities that want to be firewise and “any work that Congress can do to help us give that technical assistance across the border, we very much appreciate."
Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., who like several other Republications at the hearing expressed his affinity for Good Neighbor Authority, asked Christiansen how the Forest Service is utilizing salvage logging for post-fire and post-disease stands of trees to help prevent and recover after wildfires. The interim chief explained that in Gianforte’s region, Northern Regional Forester Leanne Marten put together strike teams and partnered with industry last season to determine where and how much timber to salvage.
Several other Republican members on the panel, including Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, expressed frustration with the current rate of timber harvest on national forests and suggested significant increases were needed to ensure forest health and resiliency. Christiansen explained that the agency is cutting more than in past years and plans to increase the total harvest volume by 15 percent next year.