Murkowski Questions Forest Service Chief on Budget Priorities, Wildfire Suppression Efforts

Today U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chaired an Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Forest Service’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018. During the hearing, Murkowski questioned Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on many of the Alaska-related priorities contained within his agency’s budget – including forest management and recreation permitting on the Tongass, land exchanges in Southeast Alaska, and wildfire suppression funding.

Murkowski began the hearing by commenting on the overall budget request for the Forest Service:

“The request acknowledges that it is the primary responsibility of the Forest Service to manage the national forests. When making tough funding decisions, we need to make certain we are meeting our basic forest health needs before we invest in other programs.  While many of the funding levels are lower than I’d like, I appreciate that this budget proposal makes investing in national forest management needs its top priority.”

Interior Approps 6.8

(Click image to watch video of Senator Murkowski’s opening statement.) 

She then went on to question Chief Tidwell about his agency’s priorities for fire suppression, specifically why the proposal does not propose any type of “fix” for fire borrowing.

“In FY 15 when we saw over 10 million acres burned nationally, 5.1 million of those acres were burned in Alaska. And what we received in the state fire assistance and volunteer assistance programs is great support for us, so when we look at these proposed cuts, we see that it hits Alaska pretty hard in regards with support for key fire staff and leadership positions as well as the initial attack firefighters. So I guess the question to you as we are looking at this budget proposal is why not propose to make larger investments in these programs, again, in order to save the cost up front? It just seems to me that when we are talking about how we tackle these fires that money upfront is money well spent.”

Chief Tidwell responded that his agency is proposing difficult reductions to very important programs, but it’s just a matter of priorities.

“I agree with you about making the upfront investment and with this budget request, we have to prioritize what is the highest priority work and that is the work on the national forests, reducing threat to communities, and yes there are some tradeoffs.”

Murkowski reiterated the need to find a solution to fire borrowing:

“Working with the administration to finally resolve this has got to be key because as I look to your budget and the budget proposal so much of this is really contingent on getting a fix, finally resolving this.”

Senator Murkowski also questioned Chief Tidwell about the status of the Alaska Mental Health Trust land exchange, which became law as part of the Omnibus Appropriations bill in May. The exchange is critical to providing a stable timber supply for the remaining Southeast Alaska timber mills.

Senator Murkowski also asked Chief Tidwell questions regarding: