By Greg Pilchak
On May 31st, Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch testified at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Field Hearing in Kenai, Alaska. Maisch detailed the impacts of the 2015 fire season and offered recommendations for minimizing the negative impacts of wildfire on public safety and recreation, while at the same time recognizing the role that wildland fire plays in forest ecosystems.
He also provided recommendations on a discussion draft of a bill designed to address fire funding and forestry reforms. His recommendations on behalf of NASF supported the bill’s effort to stop fire-borrowing and to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process. Maisch raised concerns that the bill did not address the decreasing share of the USDA Fore Service budget devoted to non-fire programs, including the state and private forestry programs, which improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Maisch noted that either a budget cap adjustment or a sub-account in the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund would address the suppression cost challenge. In the last two decades, fire suppression costs have ballooned. In FY 1995 fire costs accounted for 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, yet in 2015 they consumed over 50 percent of the agency’s budget. So while the annual problem of fire borrowing from other programs is addressed in the bill, an increasingly large portion of the Forest Service budget will remain dedicated to fire suppression, to the detriment of the other agency programs, including those that promote the health of federal, state, and private forests.
Maisch also commended the draft bill’s provision to reduce the burdens of the NEPA analysis process. The bill would only require the consideration of a limited set of alternatives, thus saving time and funding for planning staff and allowing more money to be channeled to active management. This streamlined process would allow for more efficient fuel reduction. He acknowledged that the draft bill provides for fuels reduction funding, by allowing the transfer of leftover fire suppression funds in years where suppression costs are lower. Maisch also remarked that the bill puts the state foresters on level footing with federal agencies in jointly developing policy to address fire suppression challenges.
Maisch finished by thanking the committee for their leadership efforts in addressing these concerns and foreshadowed NASF’s full written comments on the Committee’s proposed legislation.