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Congress Press USFS to Boost Timber Sales

Wednesday, March 23, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sharon Leach
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Republicans push chief to boost timber sales

Marc Heller, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Congressional Republicans grilled Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell yesterday on his agency's approach to forest management, admonishing him for not doing more to thin out the woods through timber sales.

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands took turns clashing with Tidwell, who said market conditions and the Forest Service's growing emphasis on fire suppression limit its ability to meet lawmakers' demands.

National forests are "choked and dying" because of overgrowth, leading to greater risk of catastrophic fires, said subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).

Although the Obama administration has asked Congress for more funding -- and a new funding mechanism -- for fighting wildland fires, officials aren't doing enough to address underlying causes of fires, McClintock said.

To him and other panel Republicans, a sharp increase in logging would serve two functions: promoting healthier forests that aren't as prone to out-of-control fires, and generating revenue for the government. The Forest Service should be generating around $300 per year, per acre, on timber sales, he said, although Tidwell said he doesn't believe market conditions support much expansion.

In one of its most lucrative years, 1989, the Forest Service harvested 12 billion board feet of timber worth $1.3 billion at a price of $110 per thousand board feet, the agency said.

By 2015, the agency harvested 2.5 billion board feet worth $162 million at a price of $63.96 per thousand board feet, the subcommittee's Republican staff said in a memo to lawmakers.

With limited budgets, Tidwell said, the agency has had to boost fire suppression at the cost of maintaining forests and keeping access roads open. A new funding regime that eliminates the need for transfers from other accounts -- as the administration proposed -- would help, he said.

"It's eroded the agency's ability to do the work," Tidwell said. "There's no question that if we had more capacity, we'd be able to get more work done."

Yesterday's hearing illustrated fundamental disagreement over the direction of the Forest Service, which has moved farther away from timber production as it devotes more people and money to wildfire suppression. To McClintock and other Republican lawmakers, a move back toward timber production -- and thinning out the forest -- would be more productive in the long term toward minimizing damaging fires.

The administration requested $874 million for fire suppression in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, which is designed to cover 70 percent of anticipated suppression costs. The rest would be covered using funds outside the Forest Service's budget. Congress provided the agency $811 million this fiscal year for suppression, with an additional $823 million in emergency suppression funding.

Fire suppression takes about half the Forest Service budget, and officials project the share will grow to 67 percent by 2025, Tidwell said.

"That's how dire this situation is," Tidwell said. He called the Forest Service's future "very bleak."

While firefighting tugs at the agency's budget in Western states, lawsuits and other controversies are to blame for the decline of logging on Forest Service land in Alaska, Tidwell said in an exchange with Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

Forest Service timber sales have tumbled, "killing southeast Alaska," Young said. "We don't really like the Forest Service very much in Alaska."