Forest Service Chief lays out strategy, agency priorities in Senate testimony

February 26, 2015 at 2:30pm

In testimony today before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell cited five focus areas for the President’s proposed $4.9 billion Fiscal Year 2016 budget for the agency: restoring resilient landscapes, building thriving communities, managing wildland fires, promoting safety, and building diversity and inclusiveness.

“This budget will enable us to more effectively reduce fire risk, manage landscapes more holistically, and increase the resiliency of the Nation’s forests and grasslands as well as the communities that border them,” said Tidwell.

On restoring resilient landscapes

The Forest Service responds to the many stressors affecting America’s landscapes and watersheds by working to restore healthy, resilient forests and grasslands. The proposed Integrated Resource Restoration line item will allow the Forest Service to treat 2.9 million acres to improve watershed function and resilience, sell 3.2 billion board feet of timber, maintain over 52 percent of the watersheds across the National Forest System at a properly functioning condition, and improve the condition of up to an additional 20 watersheds.

The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program currently supports 23 large-scale projects for 10-year funding to implement priority restoration projects on National Forest System lands while engaging local communities and partners. The FY 2016 President’s Budget for the Forest Service includes a proposal to eventually increase funding authority for the program from $40 million to $80 million, with funding in FY 2016 requested at $60 million. The funding increase will allow the Forest Service to pursue up to ten additional projects. Accordingly, the budget proposes extending authority for the program through 2024 to allow for full completion of new projects.

On building thriving communities

Forest-dependent rural counties and communities have long benefited from Forest Service payments to support rural schools, including payments under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. The Forest Service proposes reauthorizing the act through 2019. This will help timber-dependent rural communities transition to a more diverse, resilient economic model that is less reliant on federal receipts.

Spending by visitors engaging in recreation activities, including skiing, hiking, hunting, and fishing, supports more jobs and economic output than any other activities on the National Forest System. In 2012, outdoor recreation on the National Forest System supported around 190,000 jobs and contributed about $13 billion to the Nation’s gross domestic product. Reauthorization of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act through FY 2017 would help the agency meet public demand for sustainably managed recreational facilities.

Through work on National Forest System lands, the timber and forest products industries, livestock producers, and minerals/energy production collectively support about 118,000 jobs. Each year, these industries contribute about $11.5 billion to America’s gross domestic product. In rural areas in particular, these uses deliver sustained social and economic benefits to communities. Restoration work will create local jobs and help sustain communities, as will the sale of restoration byproducts. The agency will use traditional timber sales as well as its stewardship contracting authority to restore watersheds and healthy, resilient forested landscapes on National Forest System lands while engaging communities in management of their public lands. The FY 2016 target for timber volume sold is 3.2 billion board feet, up from 2.9 billion board feet in FY 2015.

Managing wildland fires

The FY 2016 President’s Budget proposes discretionary funding for suppression at a level represented by 70 percent of the 10-year average of fire suppression costs. This level of funding provides for suppression of 99 percent of the fires we fight. In addition, up to $855 million would be made available under a disaster funding cap adjustment to meet funding needs for fire suppression above the base appropriation. This strategy would provide increased certainty in addressing growing needs for fire suppression funding while better protecting non-suppression programs from funding transfers that diminish their effectiveness. Moreover, it would allow us to stabilize our investments in restoring forested landscapes, helping forests adapt to the growing effects of climate change, and preparing communities in the wildland/urban interface for future wildfires.

Promoting safety

For several years now, the Forest Service has been on a learning journey to become a safer organization. These efforts have resulted in a reduction of work-related annual fatalities from a 5-year running average of 7.4 per year in 2009 to a current rate of 1.8 per year. The agency has also seen a 28-percent drop in new workers’ compensation claims (from nearly 3,700 annual claims to 2,700 annual claims) over the same period. The goal is to become a zero-fatality organization by continuing to make safety an integral part of the Forest Service’s organizational culture.

On building diversity and inclusiveness

The Forest Service will create and retain a more diverse workforce that reflects American society. Diversity of thought is key to allowing successful organizations to respond to changing circumstances, and it stems from hiring people from varied backgrounds. We will strive to become an employer of choice for all Americans by continuing to treat everyone fairly and respectfully and giving everyone in our workforce the opportunity to contribute and succeed.

The Forest Service will expand access to the outdoors for underserved and minority communities and young people from urban areas by continuing to invest in programs designed to reach out to urban youth. The agency will also build on its work with partners to offer opportunities for youth in urban areas to engage in conservation work in their own communities and on National Forest System lands.

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, part U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.

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