U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today chaired an oversight hearing to examine the president’s nearly $5.7 billion budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified on behalf of the Forest Service.
Murkowski welcomed Christiansen back to the committee for the first time since being appointed chief last fall, and called on her to use the agency’s funding responsibly to carry out its multiple-use mission.
“Although this budget request is not perfect, I’m glad to see the Forest Service is taking steps to carry out a shared stewardship approach to management – working across boundaries and sharing decision-making with states and locals,” Murkowski said. “This is critically important for the health and wellbeing of our forests and rural communities.”
Murkowski thanked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for accepting the State of Alaska’s petition to restore the Roadless Rule exemption for the Tongass National Forest and begin a state-specific rulemaking. She urged the Forest Service to recognize that the Roadless Rule has never made sense in the Tongass and is not an example of shared stewardship, while expressing hope the agency will work with Alaskans to restore reasonable access on the forest.
Murkowski next spoke about the tools and resources provided by Congress in the FY 2018 omnibus and farm bill to enable the Forest Service to better protect western communities from wildfires. Last year, 8.8 million acres burned across the United States.
“In 2018 alone, the Forest Service spent a record-breaking $2.6 billion on suppression. This fiscal year, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have the ‘fire fix’ budget framework to cover firefighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. This framework treats wildfires more like natural disasters to end the destructive practice of fire borrowing and stabilize operations in the non-fire programs,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski reiterated her call for greater forest management reforms, noting that funding alone will not solve the agency’s problems.
“While I supported the fire fix, I am concerned that this budget does not invest enough in the management of our forests to reduce the risk of unnatural wildfire,” Murkowski said. “Although several modest forest management reforms were enacted last year, these reforms are simply not enough to improve the health and resilience of our national forests. There is more work to be done.”
Murkowski pressed Christiansen about the urgent need to create a safer, more respectful, and harassment-free workplace environment and asked about continued deterioration within the workforce at the Forest Service.
“We are learning, and we are making corrections at every turn of the way. What we have done in the last year is – I have stood up a work environment and performance office with our most senior executive overseeing this work. This is a best practice in both private and government sectors, so we are committed to results. And it’s a three-pronged approach – first about accountability, [the] second is about prevention, and [the] third is about a sustainable change in behavior in agency culture,” Christiansen said. “When our employees spoke to us, they said we need better skills on how we speak up and early if someone is feeling offended or when they feel there is inappropriate behavior. And we’re improving organizational behavior and culture by having an ethic to stop the silence. If we can’t talk about it, then we can’t fix it.”
“I appreciate what you have detailed. I am concerned that even given the many steps that it is clear you have put in place that when you have a 22-year veteran, someone who has achieved a position of battalion chief saying enough is not being done, we still have a failure within your system. We still have a level of harassment and assault that is clearly not acceptable. Making sure that we have good policies in place doesn’t make a difference on the ground unless and until that culture has changed,” Murkowski responded.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.