VIDEO: Udall Presses U.S. Forest Service Chief on Budget Cuts, Wildfire Funding, and Other New Mexico Priorities at Appropriations Hearing
Also questions USFS on maintaining wildlife corridors and discusses his legislation to promote reforestation
WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M), lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, pressed U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Vicki Christiansen on President Trump’s wholly insufficient budget proposal for the USFS, which would undercut the Forest Service’s ability to combat catastrophic wildfires in New Mexico and across the country. Last year, Udall worked to secure a 10-year fix for wildfire funding as part of the Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus funding bill to shore up funding for fighting wildfires for the next decade.
Video of Udall’s opening statement is available HERE.
During a hearing to review the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Udall told Christiansen that the proposed budget “fails to make the investments needed to improve the conditions of our forests and watersheds, or prevent pests, disease, and fire causing widespread havoc across the landscape.” Udall noted that he was particularly troubled to see that the administration proposed a $948 million-dollar reduction for the Forest Service – a 16 percent cut -- even though the Forest Service is now able to use the Fire Cap Adjustment Udall secured to finally putting a stop to fire borrowing.
“I am frustrated, frankly. I have seen firsthand what happens when wildfires tear through a community. In my home state, the Las Conchas and the Whitewater-Baldy fires scorched more than 450,000 acres,” said Udall. “And this is happening all across the United States, with 8.7 million acres consumed by fire in 2018.”
Highlights from Udall’s questioning of Christiansen include:
Reforestation and Wildlife Corridors: Udall discussed the Forest Service’s role in two pieces of upcoming legislation—a bill to promote reforestation on USFS lands following wildfire events, and the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, his bill to designate national wildlife corridors on federal lands.
“In 2018, Secretary Zinke issued a Secretarial Order related to improving habitat for big-game species in their winter range and migration corridors, but the goals and implementation of that order do not apply to the Forest Service,” said Udall, who plans to introduce legislation tomorrow to designate national wildlife corridors on federal lands. “I believe that the Forest Service plays a crucial role in maintaining the natural habitats and connectivity corridors for all native wildlife, including big game.”
“Science continues to show us that changes in our forests play a significant role in climate change. Forest loss can both because and effect of climate change. Conversely, restoring forests can sequester carbon and stabilize ecosystems. In fact, our national forests absorb 119 million metric tonnes of Greenhouse Gas emissions, about the amount produced by 25 million cars,” Udall said during his questioning.
Udall asked, “Chief, what programs in this Budget will increase the Forest Service’s reforestation efforts and do you have a plan to tackle the backlog of forest restoration projects?”
Christiansen similarly highlighted the role that our national forest can play in carbon sequestration, noted that there are currently 775 million acres that the Forest Service needs to reforest, but explained that Forest Service “can’t keep up.”
Udall responded that “We would like to work with you [the Forest Service] on that and I am working on some legislation too.”
Secure Rural Schools (SRS): Udall and Murkowski secured 2 years of SRS payments in the FY 2018 Omnibus as part of the Fire Funding Fix.
“The Secure Rural School payments for 2018, which Senator Murkowski and I worked to include with the Fire Cap authorization, were being hit with a sequester,” said Udall. “The Budget Office told us you are correcting that decision and counties will receive their full payments.”
Christiansen confirmed that counties will receive full SRS payments by the end of the week.
Wildfire Outlook and Programs: The FY 2018 Omnibus included a new cap adjustment for fire to provide the Forest Service more certainty in its discretionary funding for programs other than firefighting so that more agency resources could be spent on management and restoration.
“I am very focused on ensuring that the Fire Cap lasts beyond its current two-year authorization for FY 2020 and FY 2021. But to do that, we need the Forest Service to be extra judicious in the spending fire dollars. We need your help to show that this funding is spent well so that we can retain the authority,” said Udall. “Chief, will you commit to us that you will keep a watchful eye on fire spending and will give your Budget Director and Fire Director the tools they need to track and manage these expenditures so every dollar is a dollar well spent?”
Christiansen said that the Forest Service doesn’t see the new funding as a blank check and the agency is working to ensure the right resources are in the right place.
New Mexico Cultural Heritage and Natural Resource Management:
“I know that you have experience in the Southwest, as Arizona’s State Forester, but I want to know that you are familiar with the Hassell Report, which sets out ways for the Forest Service to recognize the unique cultural heritage in New Mexico and how to make the resources of National Forests and the work they generate contributes more effectively in the local communities?” asked Udall.
Christiansen said she was familiar with the report and said the agency is working to be aware and sensitive to the needs of local communities.
“It is a fifty-year-old document, and while of the statements within it are outdated and others inaccurate, I believe it continues to give some valuable insights into how we view our land and how it should be managed. I think it should be required reading for all Forest Service employees, not just those working in New Mexico because it sets out a framework for collaboration and building trust between a community and the Forest Service,” said Udall. “I want you to know that Cal Joyner, our Regional Forester, is putting these recommendations to work.”
“In the 6 years Cal has been Regional Forester, he has made sure that the Forest Service works hand in hand with the land grants and acequias that are unique to New Mexico. On everything from forest plan revisions to guidance on maintenance and repairs, Cal and his staff have conducted extensive outreach to make sure our local traditional communities have the opportunity for meaningful input,” said Udall.
Tribal Forest Management Demonstration Project: The 2018 Farm Bill included a new provision Udall championed to provide the Forest Service with the authority to use Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance “638” contracts with Indian Tribes for forestry management and restoration activities on adjacent forest lands.
Udall asked: “I understand that USDA has begun Tribal consultation on the 2018 Farm Bill provisions. Is the Forest Service being included in those discussions, especially on this 638 authority? Do you have a timeline for when the agency will start contracting with tribes using this new 638 authority? Do you support this new authority and are you going to be using it soon?”
Christiansen confirmed that USFS supports the new authority. She assured Udall that USFS would have a “template” in place by early summer and plans to build relationships with Pueblos and Tribes in New Mexico. “We are making sure we stand ready to do those 638 or self-determination contracts as quickly as possible,” Christiansen said.
Video of Udall’s opening statement is available HERE.
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