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

Today U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) questioned Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on the priorities contained within the agency’s $4.9 billion request for Fiscal Year 2017—specifically addressing the issues of wildfire suppression, fire-borrowing, and forest management reforms.

Senator Murkowski began the hearing by reaffirming her commitment to finding a long-term solution for active forest management that would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and end the practice of fire-borrowing, saying:

“I take a very, very keen interest in making sure that we’re doing right when it comes to dealing with forest management issues throughout the country, and how we deal with the ever-increasing threat of wildfire. We’ve already had at least two wildfires up in Alaska, probably had our earliest fire ever in late February. It has been a very, very light and warm winter with not a lot of snowfall, so the real concern for us is, what’s on deck this year? There is great interest in working through these longer-term solutions, rather than just a Band-Aid approach that we have taken.”

Murkowski also criticized the Forest Service for seeking to increase its budget for land acquisition while simultaneously decreasing the funds needed to actively manage existing lands in order to reduce the risk of wildfires, asking:

“With the cost of fire suppression growing, why would you take those discretionary dollars and put more towards land acquisition, rather than forest management? The example I will use is the Funny River Fire in Alaska back in 2014. In the wake of that fire, 11.3 million acres were identified as high priority for fuels reduction. Have you done anything with those 11.3 million acres? I’m not seeing that the dollars are going towards that level of management. You have to understand the frustration of so many of us, that at a time when we cannot take care of the lands that we have, we’re going to spend more dollars to bring more into that account?”

(Click image to watch video of hearing.)

Murkowski, as Chairman of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, ensured that fire suppression efforts are fully funded in Fiscal Year 2016 by including $1.6 billion for fire suppression ($600 million more than the average federal cost of fighting wildfires over the past ten years), $545 million for hazardous fuels reduction, and $360 million for the Forest Service’s timber program in the year-end omnibus.

Murkowski is now working with her colleagues – including the Chairmen of the Senate Agriculture and Budget Committees – to develop a longer-term plan that will promote responsible forest management, increase timber production, and end the destructive process of fire-borrowing.