Murkowski: Forest Service Should Prioritize Wildland Fire Management, Reasonable Access to Alaska Forests

Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today convened a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to examine the President’s $5.3 billion budget request for the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) for Fiscal Year 2021. During the hearing, Murkowski addressed the importance of fire management, the need for sustainable timber harvesting and recreation access in Alaska, and the disturbing rise in firefighter suicides.

“Although this year’s budget request is far from perfect, I agree the priority must be on wildland fire management and improving the health of our forests,” Murkowski said. “In Alaska, I routinely hear about the demand for new recreation uses and corresponding difficulties in securing permits from the Forest Service for them. I also remain concerned that the agency is not doing enough to cultivate a work environment that is free of harassment and retaliation, and I’m disturbed by the increasing rate of suicide among wildland firefighters.”

The Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, was the hearing’s sole witness. 

Murkowski started the question-and-answer period by asking Christiansen about sustainable timber harvesting in Alaska. While the Forest Service has set a national harvest goal of four billion board feet for 2020, the agency made just 5.6 million board feet available in the Tongass – the largest national forest – in 2019. That is just 0.14 percent of the 2020 goal, which Murkowski described as “wholly unsatisfactory,” particularly in light of retaliatory tariffs from China that are harming the Tongass’ few remaining mills. Murkowski declared that the Forest Service’s ongoing failures have effectively “eliminated an industry and an opportunity” for good jobs in Southeast Alaska.

Later in the hearing, Murkowski asked Christiansen about the actual projected effects that lifting the Roadless Rule would have on the Tongass timber program. While those effects have been massively inflated by some who oppose the restoration of an exemption from the Roadless Rule, Christiansen confirmed that the Tongass is “far more than just timber” and that an exemption would not alter the forest plan, which ultimately guides the amount of timber harvest. Murkowski reiterated that an exemption is important for flexibility for economic timber sales; tourism; access to energy projects, including renewables; and use for all stakeholders.

After Murkowski led the effort to secure a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program late last year, Christiansen guaranteed that the next payments to counties and Alaska boroughs would be released by the end of March 2020.

Murkowski also secured a commitment from Chief Christiansen to re-evaluate stumpage rates on spruce logs harvested in the Tongass to help offset the damaging impacts of China’s ongoing retaliatory tariffs.

Finally, Murkowski asked greater access for recreation on the Chugach and the Tongass. She specifically mentioned a permit application that has been pending at the Forest Service for three years, to guide visitors on a hike to a scenic tree on Admiralty Island. The “hike” is a mere 20 steps from a state-owned beach.  

Murkowski is chairman of both the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. Last July, she hosted Christiansen in Alaska to see the issues facing communities where the federal government manages the vast majority of the land. An archived video of today’s hearing can be found on the committee’s website. Click here and here to view Murkowski’s questions for Christiansen.

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