VIDEO: Udall Calls for Strong Funding to Fight Wildfires, Support New Mexico at Forest Service Budget Hearing
With wildfire season underway, Trump’s budget request would ‘shortchange key priorities in the Forest Service’ for NM and US
WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell about President Trump’s massive proposed FY 2018 Forest Service budget cuts during a hearing of Udall’s subcommittee. Udall said that the president’s budget – which proposes cutting nearly $900 million from the Forest Service budget — would “shortchange key priorities in the Forest Service budget.” With wildfire season underway in New Mexico, Udall pressed Tidwell on the need for strong funding for wildfire suppression, contending that the president’s cuts do not “leave enough funding to fight wildfires.” Udall also said that the president’s Forest Service budget “doesn’t allow the agency to perform core land management functions,” including key programs that stimulate New Mexico’s economy and are valued by local communities.
“It’s no secret that the historic method used to budget for wildland firefighting — the rolling average of firefighting costs — is not enough to fully fund actual firefighting needs…and frequently leads to the agencies running out of funds and being forced to borrow from other programs,” Udall said. Yet the president’s Forest Service budget “fails to request any funding to supplement the 10-year average, and fails to offer a legislative proposal to address the long-term challenges of the fire suppression budget.”
Udall pressed Tidwell on the administration’s plans to address the inadequacy of the firefighting funds, and on the need for action to ensure that the Forest Service doesn’t have to rob from other crucial programs — programs that are key to preventing the next wildfire — in order to fund emergency wildfire suppression. Tidwell said that “we need to find a solution so that we can be able to maintain a program of work, so that over time, we can not only reduce the threat to our communities, but reduce the severity of wildfire on the landscape…. As long as every year you have to put more and more money into fire suppression, it just limits your flexibility to provide for the other public needs out there.”
Udall asked Tidwell whether taking "the largest fires – that 2 percent – and treat[ing] them like natural disasters…would stabilize the budget situation.” Tidwell responded that “it would," saying that designating emergency or disaster funds for the most severe fires would prevent against the costly practice of borrowing from other critical programs to fund wildfire suppression.
Udall last month secured an additional $407 million for emergency wildfire suppression in a bipartisan budget agreement to fund the government through September of this year.
Additionally, Udall addressed the status of several critical Forest Service programs and initiatives that benefit New Mexico’s economy and local communities, including the president’s proposal to eliminate the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLR), a collection of 23 projects across the country — including two in New Mexico – that were selected to receive 10 years of funding to build a coalition of local support to restore healthy, resilient forests. Udall noted that CFLR projects in New Mexico in the Southwest Jemez and Zuni mountains “have brought together public and private land managers, conservationists, and Pueblos in a way that benefits both forest ecosystems and local economies.”
“Eliminating this [CFLR] program just doesn’t make any sense,” Udall said, asking Tidwell “if this budget were adopted, would current CFLR projects receive the funding that was committed to them when their agreements were signed?” Tidwell responded that the Forest Service is "committed to moving forward and using this model beyond what we’ve done in the past. But the reality is those ongoing projects are going to have to compete — and I expect many of them are going to be able to compete very well."
Udall also expressed concern about the administration’s proposal to cut capital improvements at the Forest Service by 84 percent, even though the president “has said that his focus is job creation in rural America and building infrastructure…. How do we sustain the $10 billion generated by visitors to our National Forests—and the 143,000 jobs they create—if we don’t have roads to access the forests, or safe and accessible facilities, or hiking trails for visitors to use once they are there?”
"Can you tell me what the rationale was for the cut to this program, which creates jobs and supports the core functions of the agency? How do you plan to distribute such a paltry amount of funding for these activities?” Udall asked. Tidwell said "there’s no question there will be definitely less road construction,” while adding that “we can make a very strong case that our road system, our infrastructure, our bridges, our facilities, our campgrounds – its a good investment."
Finally, Udall asked Tidwell about the Forest Service’s “Valuing People and Places” pilot program — an effort to better connect the Forest Service’s workforce to the communities they serve — and the importance of engaging with New Mexico’s unique communities and community associations, including Tribes, land grants, acequias, and community ditch associations. Tidwell said that, “There’s been a lot of good success that has occurred in [New Mexico]. I’ve heard it directly from our employees, the things that they learned, and also how the communities appreciated it – for us just to show up there without an agenda, with one purpose: to listen."
Udall also called for improvements in meaningful government to government consultation with New Mexico’s 23 federally recognized Tribes. As Udall said, "I have heard from Tribes that it seems like the Forest Service does not understand why Tribes may want to protect information from the public like the location of their cultural resources and sites, or understand how Tribal consultation is different from engagement with other stakeholders. As you know, federally recognized Tribes are not simply stakeholders, they are sovereign governments.”
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