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Forest Service Faces Ongoing Challenges, Opportunities

Posted by LeAndra Spicer on June 28, 2013
On June 25, US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell addressed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources about the challenges and opportunities his agency faces to improve forest management on federal lands. Efforts to restore and maintain the health of the nation’s forests face significant threats, particularly from uncharacteristic and catastrophic wildfire, yet progress has also been made on a number of fronts.

Tidwell reported the Forest Service continues to focus on ways in which to increase the scope and scale of restoration efforts that exceeded a number of targets in Fiscal Year 2012 (October 1 – September 30). Those accomplishments included:

 

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Timber Sales

The Forest Service also sold 2.6 billion board feet (BBF) of timber in FY 2012. Tidwell noted the agency continues to review its business practices to determine how to reduce the cost of selling timber. Based on testimony heard by the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation earlier this year, the federal government would do well to turn to the states for answers (see What States Can Teach the Federal Government about Forest Management).

Tidwell also shared examples of successful outcomes the Forest Service has realized through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Landscape Scale Projects as well as Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR).

 

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*anticipated targets

 

Tidwell acknowledged stewardship contracting is critical to the Forest Service’s ability to complete restoration activities efficiently. Reauthorizing and expanding stewardship contracting helps reduce government costs related to timber harvests. One quarter of the timber volume sold in FY 2012 was under stewardship contract.

Tidwell also focused on the potential the wood bioenergy market has to improve the economic viability of harvests. “We know we cannot achieve all of this without a strong integrated forest products industry that can use all parts and sizes of trees to help us accomplish our restoration work,” he remarked.

Once costly to remove, wood biomass is now a merchantable product used by government buildings across the country. The USDA Wood to Energy Initiative – a joint effort of the Forest Service and USDA Rural Development program – has helped launch wood-to-energy projects at both the state and industrial levels.

Money into the Fire

At a committee hearing in April, Senators blasted Tidwell and the Forest Service for a failure to adequately manage harvest efforts in national forests (see Legislators Ramp Up Efforts to Address the Health of the Nation’s Forests). Tidwell blamed the reduced FY 2013 budget for an anticipated slowdown in progress on treatment acres and timber harvests then and in the most recent hearing.

Like last year, the bulk of the Forest Service budget will be put toward fire suppression costs. Tidwell estimates the agency will spend half of its funds in firefighting efforts, noting 40 percent of the continental Unites States is experiencing drought conditions that exacerbate wildfires.

These costs, along with acres burned, were fairly stable through the 1990s but have steadily risen since the FY 2000 fire season that cost $1 billion. The 10-year average of fire suppression costs has risen almost every year since, ringing it approximately $540 million in 2000 and $900 million in 2012.

In 2012, 67,774 wildfires burned over 9 million acres in the United States[3] in 1991.

 

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Tidwell also noted new and ongoing litigation increases costs that take away from restoration efforts. The Forest Service is currently working to improve environmental documentation and decision making to reduce litigation risks. The national forests were established to protect the land as well as provide a sustainable supply of goods and services.  Unfortunately, the Forest Service must continually address lawsuits that fail to recognize the latter.

Regardless of whether Senate committee members approve or disapprove of Tidwell and the Forest Service’s approach, all agree that maintaining and restoring our national forests must continue to take priority. Tidwell’s full testimony is available via the Natural Resources Committee website.

Topics: forest management

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