U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today chaired an oversight hearing to examine the president’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2019. Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen testified on behalf of the Forest Service.
Murkowski opened the hearing by noting the Forest Service will receive greater flexibility in funding as a result of the recent omnibus, which included a multi-year budgeting fix for wildfire suppression costs. Murkowski, while urging meaningful forest management reforms to help prevent wildfires in the first place, called on the Forest Service to use that funding certainty to finally put an end to fire borrowing and return to its multiple-use mission.
“The agency has been given more funding, new tools, and expanded authorities. We’ll be looking to build on those. But in the meantime, get going to correct the management failures that have plagued the agency for years,” Murkowski said. “End fire borrowing and revamp your budget process. Ensure that our forests are productive again. Move at the pace and scale needed on our overstocked forests to reduce the risk for catastrophic fires. Streamline permitting so that we can produce minerals that are critical to our national security. And provide access to rural communities, so they can build and sustain thriving economies.”
Murkowski also pointed to the cultural challenges facing the Forest Service, and told Christiansen that resolving them must be one of her highest priorities.
“You’ll also have one other major job - internal reforms to put an end to the sexual harassment and assault that have plagued the Forest Service,” Murkowski said. “I have been horrified to learn about what has been happening, over the course of years and decades. It is categorically unacceptable. Improving the culture and guaranteeing a safe workplace must be one of your highest priorities.”
In both her opening statement and questions, Murkowski spoke to the ongoing management failures in our two largest national forests – the Tongass and the Chugach, both in Alaska – where access is significantly restricted, harming local economies.
“As I have said many times before, the Roadless Rule has never made sense in the Tongass, a forest made up of 32 island communities. In my mind, more access starts with restoring the Roadless exemption in the Tongass, and you have a state petition that asks you to do just that,” Murkowski said. “We hear a lot of talk about keeping public lands accessible to the public, but in Alaska, that’s often very different from the public’s experience.”
As part of her first round of questions, Murkowski asked Christiansen what the Forest Service is doing to respond to the State of Alaska’s petition for an exemption from the Roadless Rule.
“We are working very closely with the State of Alaska to look at all of the options to address the Roadless issues. A response is being submitted in the matter of a day from Secretary Perdue back to the State of Alaska,” Christiansen said. “We want to look for success in how we can assure southeast Alaska citizens have the needs met as you identified, and we will support the state in numerous ways on those various options.”
Murkowski also pressed Christiansen on the agency’s plans to address errors in the 2016 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) Amendment. The agency failed to conduct a stand-level inventory needed to determine the appropriate timeframe for a transition to young-growth timber harvesting. Compounding that are errors in the plan amendment—including its treatment of moderate vulnerability karst—that have led to even greater restrictions on the number of acres where timber can be harvested.
Christiansen acknowledged the errors and the stand-level inventory and said that the Forest Service will need to adjust the transition to take these issues into account. The Forest Service is evaluating the best way to do that, but it may require the management plan to be amended.
In Murkowski’s second round of questions, she asked Christiansen about the steps the Forest Service is taking to make the Tongass and the Chugach more accessible to outfitters, guides, and tourism operators. Christiansen acknowledged the chairman’s work to lift the moratorium on recreation permits in the Chugach and committed to being as responsive as possible to requests that will expand recreational access for Alaskans and visitors.
Murkowski is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. An archived video of today’s hearing can be found on the committee’s website. Click here and here to view Murkowski’s questions for Christiansen.