Murkowski Calls on Forest Service to Release Plan on Firefighting Aircraft

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today expressed disappointment with the Forest Service’s planning for maintaining sufficient firefighting aircraft resources after review of an audit of the plan conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General.
Two weeks ago at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on wildfire preparedness, Murkowski called on the Forest Service to provide Congress with a report on how it plans to combat wildfires and what aircraft resources it needs to do so. While the Forest Service put together such a plan in 2005 – requesting $2.5 billion over the next decade to modernize its aging fleet of firefighting aircraft – it’s never been released.
“We cannot combat wildfires without the right equipment and preparation,” Murkowski said. “In order for Congress to appropriate the right funds and authorize programs to help fight wildfires, we need full cooperation from the Forest Service. They must do their part in budgeting and planning for what is becoming an increasingly costly program.”
The IG report released this morning makes public for the first time details of the Forest Service’s aerial firefighting plan. Among the IG’s findings is that the Forest Service acted irresponsibly in planning and budgeting for future costs associated with its aerial firefighting capabilities. The IG recommended the Forest Service strengthen both its justification for acquiring new aircraft and its ability to collect funds to repair and replace those planes once procured.
“Specifically, to receive Congressional funding for new aircraft, [the Forest Service] must first demonstrate its need for them to the Office of Management and Budget,” the IG report found. The Forest Service needs to also convince the Congress of the need for new aircraft, the report said.
Murkowski called on the Forest Service to implement the IG’s recommendations, as well as consider alternatives to replacing its fleet of large firefighting aircraft.
“The Forest Service must complete a planned procurement process for acquiring new firefighting aircraft before Congress approves any funding,” Murkowski said. “The agency must approach the situation responsibly and look not only at the purchase price of new airplanes, but also at the cost of repairing and maintaining the existing fleet.”
Murkowski also expressed frustration over the Forest Service’s failure to update its rental fees for other agencies to use its planes, which is designed to pay for the upkeep and replacement of its firefighting air force, leaving the agency dependent on congressional appropriations to replace its aging aircraft. The Forest Service has just $8 million in its special account for aircraft maintenance and replacement, when a single large airplane capable of dropping retardant on remote wildfires can cost up to $75 million. The IG report recommends the Forest Service establish realistic fees that will provide sufficient funding to meet the agency’s long-term firefighting needs.
Firefighting has become one of the Forest Service’s most costly budget items, consuming $2 billion in 2008.
Murkowski urged the Secretary of Agriculture, the chief of the Forest Service, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of the Inspector General to work together to provide Congress with an updated report on replacing the Forest Service’s aerial resources by the end of the year.