WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today pressed U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on the need for the agency to shift its approach to wildfire suppression by more actively managing federal forestry lands to reduce the frequency and severity of fires.
Murkowski said the agency’s refusal to actively manage forestry lands by clearing underbrush, dead trees, and other hazardous fuels, contributes directly to the skyrocketing costs of fire suppression. The Forest Service is regularly forced to borrow money from other accounts to cover the cost of the summer fire season.
“Escalating fire suppression costs are causing a financial crisis for the Forest Service. The agency routinely exceeds its suppression budget causing it to have to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from other important programs,” Murkowski said. “Ironically, some of these transfers come from programs, such as hazardous fuels, that could reduce the costs of suppression in the long-term.”
The Forest Service estimates it will spend $1.5 billion fighting wildfires this year. The Interior Department expects to spend an additional $296 million.
“Everyone agrees that we need to stop the endless cycle of borrowing. The bigger question is how we do so in a fiscally responsible manner?” Murkowski said. “We need a resolution that not only fixes the problem but is also politically tenable in the current fiscally constrained environment. I am happy this committee was able to launch the dialogue on how we budget for wildfire management.”
Murkowski, the ranking Republican of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, made her comments at Tuesday’s hearing on the Forest Service’s wildfire management policies.
“Clearly the issue of wildfire suppression and fire borrowing are important ones that Congress needs to address, but simply handing a blank check to the Forest Service is not going to reduce the costs of fighting fires,” Murkowski said. “Money alone is not going to solve this issue. What’s needed is a fiscally responsible way to address escalating fire suppression costs, while ensuring the Forest Service addresses the excess underbrush and timber that’s fueling these big fires.”
The Forest Service manages more than 22 million acres of national forest lands in Alaska, including nearly all of the land in Southeast. That is more acres than the entire 52 national forests located in the eastern and southern United States.
Video of the full hearing can be viewed on the energy committee website.