Murkowski: Forest Service Should Promote Healthy Forests, Prosperous Economies for Alaskan Communities

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today chaired an oversight hearing held by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to examine the U.S. Forest Service’s $4.7 billion budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018, which would be about $880 million less than the previous fiscal year.

Murkowski opened the hearing by noting that when making tough funding decisions, Congress must ensure the Forest Service has the resources it needs to meet basic forest health needs before funding other programs. 

“I appreciate the Forest Service’s acknowledgement that its primary responsibility is to manage our national forests,” Murkowski said. “While some of the agency’s recommended budget cuts are worth considering, others, like the proposed cuts to recreation programs, are concerning. Some could impact critical forest management activities, like firefighting and hazardous fuels reduction. And some appear to contradict other proposals in the budget, so we will need to review all of these very carefully, as we work on our budget for the next fiscal year.”

Murkowski also spoke about the Forest Service’s management failures and how those failures have negatively impacted the budgets and economies of forested communities in Alaska and the Lower 48.

“The Forest Service failing to do its job, whether making timber available or something else, has significant impacts on real people,” Murkowski said. “The Forest Service needs to do more to make our forests the economic engines they should be. While Alaska paints a very stark picture of the need for robust and responsible uses of our national forests, the need is nationwide.”

“Recreation, tourism, and forest products can and must coexist for us to have thriving and healthy communities,” Murkowski continued. “This is not only a matter of federal funding, but also reasonable access to resources and a real understanding of local communities’ needs and opportunities. Although we haven’t seen enough of this in recent years, I am confident this new administration will head in a better direction.”

Murkowski also spoke about the need for stable funding for wildland fire management.

“Fire season is already well underway in Alaska, so this funding is again a priority for me,” Murkowski said. “The Forest Service’s request for its wildland fire management program is roughly $2.5 billion. Fire suppression is funded at the full 10-year average of just over $1 billion.  While the budget does not propose a wildfire cap adjustment or any type of “fix” to end fire borrowing, I was pleased to see the administration note that it is prepared to work with Congress to find a fiscally responsible solution.”

During the first question and answer portion of the hearing, Murkowski asked Tidwell about the Forest Service’s strategy for air tanker modernization, which is critical to firefighting efforts. Murkowski expressed concern with the Forest Service’s continued push to purchase converted military aircraft for its fleet, as those aircraft would place the private industry’s next generation tankers in direct competition with the government for work. Tidwell reassured Murkowski that the majority of the fleet will be privately owned. 

Murkowski next asked Tidwell about the Forest Service’s decision to restrict opportunities for new outfitters and guides in the Chugach National Forest, which covers 5.4 million acres in southcentral Alaska. While the Forest Service has a history of denying permits for new tourism operations in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, the agency has also imposed a moratorium on permits for new guides and outfitters in the Chugach.

Last year, Tidwell issued a memorandum encouraging forests with such bans to consider lifting them, but the Chugach has taken no action since then. Murkowski noted that numerous guiding operations have been told to “check back” for permits in several years, with one guide being told to come back in seven years. Tidwell committed to reviewing the issue.

Murkowski also questioned Tidwell about the Forest Service’s position on the Cooper Landing bypass route, the agency’s plans to increase timber harvesting in the Tongass, and the financial analysis behind its hurried transition to young-growth harvesting in the Tongass, which Tidwell agreed to provide.

Murkowski’s final question to Tidwell was about the Secure Rural Schools program. Tidwell was unable to say whether the administration supports the program, but noted that it helps provide a safety net and certainty to affected counties and boroughs.  

Murkowski is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. An archived video of today’s hearing can be found on the committee’s website.  

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