By Greg Pilchak
The National Association of State Foresters submitted a letter commenting on the Senate Committee on Agriculture’s bill, the Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016. NASF commends the Committee’s leadership and initiative in trying to find a solution to the wildfire funding challenges faced by the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior as well as providing forest management provisions which will facilitate more active forest management. NASF urges the Committee to ensure that legislation addressing wildfire funding and forest management challenges is enacted this year.
NASF acknowledges the efforts to curtail fire borrowing but shows concern for the continued erosion of non-fire suppression programs. In 1995, fire suppression accounted for 1/6th of the USFS budget, but in 2015, it accounted for more than half. In each of the last two years, there has been a 100 million dollar reduction in funding available for non-fire suppression programs, including critical fuels and forestry work.
The draft legislation will prevent fire borrowing by providing access to disaster funding when wildfire suppression costs surpass funds designated for suppression. However, the approach outlined in the bill is only a partial solution. Finding a source for off-line emergency wildfire suppression funding only solves the fire borrowing challenge. It will not solve the erosion of funding for non-wildfire funding programs. NASF recommends a comprehensive solution that addresses fire transfers and halts the erosion of non-wildfire suppression funding due to increasing suppression costs. This is an urgent priority for the nation and must be solved. The Committee could consider removing off-line funding from the ten year average calculation or selecting a specific year for baseline wildfire suppression funding and funding additional activities off-line beyond that threshold.
NASF generally supports the proposed forest management reforms, which would encourage more active forest management. These reforms include streamlining the analysis process when there is collaboration of diverse interests, expanded use of categorical exclusions, increasing reforestation efforts after catastrophic wildfires through responsible salvage activity, and piloting arbitration.
NASF would propose an expanded role of the states’ Forest Action Plans, which were prepared by the State Foresters. These plans would be the key resource in guiding cross-boundary forest management, prioritizing projects, and in designating landscapes for the National Forest Accelerated Landscape Restoration Pilot Program. NASF appreciates the opportunity to provide comment on the legislation and looks forward to working with the Committee as it moves forward.