E&E News: Murkowski, Tidwell spar over Tongass old-growth logging plan

A Forest Service draft plan to end old-growth logging at Alaska's Tongass National Forest sparked several tense exchanges yesterday between the agency's head and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to hold off on advancing the plan to move from old-growth to new-growth logging in Tongass until completing a detailed inventory to ensure there is actually enough young-growth timber to sustain the industry.

Murkowski told Tidwell she was particularly concerned that the Forest Service's $4.9 billion fiscal 2017 budget request did not include funding to pay for such an inventory.

"I'm looking at this, recognizing how long it takes to do this study, the costs associated with it, not seeing it specifically in your budget," Murkowski said during a budget hearing.

"So the question this morning is whether or not the Forest Service will consider postponing this transition until we have a complete young-growth inventory and a financial analysis that are completed in order to determine whether or not a transition is even feasible."

But Tidwell told Murkowski that the Forest Service intends to move forward with the plan, even if the inventory is not complete, as part of an ongoing effort to amend the Tongass National Forest's land-use plan to identify which areas should be available for timber harvest.

He said the plan amendment was long overdue, noting more than 20 years "of controversy and litigation around old-growth harvest," particularly the long legal battle to protect the forest's roadless areas and prevent logging some of the last remaining stands of old-growth temperate rainforest in the world.

"Senator, it's essential that we move forward and complete the amendment to the forest plan," Tidwell said.

Murkowski asked, "But don't we have to have this study?"

Tidwell replied, "Not for a forest plan amendment, no."

Murkowski said that without an inventory, the Forest Service would be promulgating "a forest plan amendment that isn't based on a strong, sound analysis and the science attached to it."

Tidwell said the Forest Service would continue its inventory of young-growth timber. And he said the agency is already conducting a wood-quality study "from our research and development folks so that we have a better understanding about where's the potential market for the future for the young-growth wood."

Tidwell later told Murkowski his agency is also exploring ways of driving "new markets" for young-growth timber. Murkowski responded, "New markets are good, chief, but you still have to have trees that are mature enough to harvest."

Murkowski returned to the issue during the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, telling Tidwell that the timber industry and mills in her state are barely hanging on financially and need assurances that there will be sustainable timber harvesting at Tongass, both in the near future and over the long term.

Tidwell said, "Without any question, I believe this approach over time, to transition to the young growth, is the solution to be able for us to continue to provide the integrated wood-products industry in southeast Alaska."

Murkowski was persistent. Without a young-growth inventory and deeper financial analysis, she said, there's no way to know if that's "plausible."

"I am trying to make something that works beyond the paper plan, because on paper, it might be possible," she said. "But again, you can't push this young growth timber to grow any quicker. It cannot be a fantasy plan; it has to be based on accurate analysis and assessment and a reality on the ground."

Wildfire budget reform

Beyond Tongass, most of yesterday's Forest Service budget hearing focused on the need to reform the way the federal government pays to fight wildfires.

The budget request calls for an $864 million fire suppression cap adjustment that would kick in once the agency exhausts discretionary wildfire funding.

The Forest Service in recent years has needed to borrow money from other agency programs -- including some designed to improve forest resilience to wildfires -- when discretionary funding runs out. This practice, known as "fire borrowing," has occurred in seven of the past 14 years, the agency says.

The Forest Service budget request asks Congress to fund 70 percent of the 10-year average of firefighting costs, or a little more than $1.2 billion.

The proposed cap adjustment would make up the remaining 30 percent, as well as any costs above the 10-year average, likely eliminating the need to transfer money out of non-firefighting programs each year.

"We just have to find a way to be able to permanently stop the transfers, the disruption of our work every fall," Tidwell said. "We need to find an alternative to the 10-year average. It's not a viable budget approach."

Congress last year approved a one-time fire suppression funding boost in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending package, placing $823 million in the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund for the agency to access once base suppression funds run out.
The money was set aside to eliminate the need for fire borrowing, at least for this year, while the White House and Congress work on a permanent solution.

"Where that will help us this one year, it is not a solution," Tidwell said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), like other committee members, bemoaned that the issue remains unresolved, and he vowed to help lead a bipartisan effort to adopt a final plan.

"We have to find a way to get this done, because this makes a mockery out of the Forest Service budget," Wyden said. "So we're going to do everything we can through the leadership on both sides of the Capitol, to work with you and to get this done."

LWCF, budget priorities

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) criticized the Forest Service's budget priorities and appeared to take a shot at the agency's request to boost acquisitions under the Land and Water Conservation Fund -- to $128 million from $63 million in current funding.

The LWCF uses a portion of offshore oil-and-gas-drilling royalties to purchase and preserve federal and private lands and to help build and restore urban parks and trails.

While enjoying bipartisan support, how the fund is used is a sore spot with some GOP congressional leaders, who want the money to help maintain existing national lands and infrastructure.

"The budget makes it clear the Forest Service values expansion of costly, counterproductive programs, as I see them, much more than actual maintenance and management of current assets," Barrasso told Tidwell.

"Funding increases for new roads, for land acquisitions, while funding for capital improvements, maintenance, road maintenance and timber products remains level or actually goes down a bit," the senator said. "It seems the Forest Service should re-evaluate its priorities."

Barrasso asked Tidwell to justify increasing funding for "new lands" when the Forest Service has about a $5 billion maintenance backlog of projects "and is really unable at this point to address these within the current priority structure."

Tidwell defended the increased LWCF funding, noting that planned purchases include key parcels that, among other things, would help ensure public access to public lands.

Many of the parcels are private inholdings or lands adjacent to national forests, and by purchasing them, the agency would be able to conduct restoration and improvement projects with less administrative cost because the Forest Service wouldn't have to worry about "boundary management," said Tidwell.

As for maintenance of roads, Tidwell acknowledged that the fiscal 2017 budget request was less than current funding. "I wish we could ask for more," he said. But again, the enormous costs of wildfire suppression prevented the agency from doing so, he said.

"When we have to look at finding that additional funding in a constrained budget to be able to put into fire suppression, something has to give," he said. "And I'll tell you, there are very difficult choices that we have to make."

Tidwell said, "So it's one of the few areas that actually went down in our requests between '16 to '17. But you also see that we're asking for additional money in the cost of fire suppression. That's what we're up against."

Link to the original article: http://www.eenews.net/eedaily/2016/03/09/stories/1060033661

By:  Scott Streater