By Brent A. Rudolph, Ph.D., RGS & AWS Director of Conservation Policy
Under budgets devastated by wildfire suppression costs, the Forest Service has reduced land management staff by 39% since 1998. Since 2001, vegetation and watershed management program funding has been reduced by 24%, and wildlife and fisheries management program funding by 18%.
On Dec 1, 2017, we asked supporters to ask Congress for a budgetary fix to help the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) deal with out of control annual fire suppression costs, and to enact other management reforms to address backlogged wildlife habitat needs.
The response from our supporters? Great!
The response from Congress? NOT great.
The next very narrow window of opportunity is to urge senators to include forest management reform and a fire funding fix in a federal budget deal. The latest continuing resolution that kept the government funded runs out January 19, 2018.
You might not see direct impacts of wildfires where you live or recreate, but I can assure you every National Forest has been and will continue to be affected if no action is taken. More than 56% of the total Forest Service budget is consumed by wildfire suppression costs, and those costs are expected to surpass two thirds of the budget by 2021 if we don’t act soon. Under budgets devastated by wildfire suppression costs, the Forest Service has reduced land management staff by 39% since 1998. Since 2001, vegetation and watershed management program funding has been reduced by 24%, and wildlife and fisheries management program funding by 18%.
On top of these limitations, laws intended to protect our natural resources are instead fueling litigation against misunderstood but essential forest management practices. Across all National Forests in the eastern U.S. (USFS Regions 8 and 9), “even age” forest treatments have met only 24% of the MINIMUM goals established in forest plans. Other types of forest treatments have not been targeted as aggressively, and have come closer to reaching goal levels.
If you didn’t receive our action alert, or if you didn’t take the opportunity to respond to it at that time, take a look below at the background information the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society provided and the actions we urged to be taken. Take the time now to ask Congress to provide the tools needed for sound scientific management of our forests, and if you’re a social media user, watch for the #FixOurForest and #FireFixNow campaigns that RGS/AWS and a number of our conservation partners will launch next week.
Thanks so much for all you do on behalf of healthy forests, abundant wildlife, and sustaining our sporting traditions!
Congressional Action Needed for Federal Forestry Reform
- Several House and Senate bills have recently been introduced to reform federal forest management, but none appear likely to pass both chambers
- Identical House and Senate bills have been introduced to address wildfire disaster funding
- Congress needs to hear from our members that forestry reform and wildfire disaster funding are too important to be overlooked
I don’t often ask for your help. I know the holidays are upon us and you probably have extra family or travel obligations. If you’re watching the news, you hear daily about partisan bickering over numerous issues in front of Congress. Despite all of that, this is an important time for us to speak up on behalf of healthy forests, abundant wildlife, and sustaining our sporting traditions. Congress is exploring some opportunities (and overlooking others) that could make a difference. If you’d like to be a part of this, keep reading.
The “Fire Borrowing” Problem and Need for Forestry Reform
More intense and extreme wildfires, a longer wildfire season, and people moving closer to fire-prone forests are driving an increase in firefighting costs. Against these influences – even with increased annual fire budgets and supplemental funding sometimes provided by Congress – federal agencies must often transfer, or “borrow”, funding from programs that are needed to maintain our public lands. Congress must provide a comprehensive, common-sense wildfire funding fix to help the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Department of Interior (DOI) fully advance their missions with respect to healthy forest management. On the heels of catastrophic seasons for both wildfires and hurricanes, the next opportunity is presenting itself while taking on an overall Disaster Relief Funding package.
At the same time, management of our National Forests occurs under restrictions and guidance by more than 80 laws. Though the value of these resources warrants careful oversight, this legal complexity has enabled litigation in recent decades at an average of about 56 lawsuits filed per year. USFS lost less than 30% of cases brought against it, but the time and resources required to address this litigation (and aversion to prompting even more) allows entities opposed to forest treatments to highjack management. Hardest hit has been young forest habitat required by ruffed grouse, American woodcock, golden-winged warblers, and many other declining game and nongame species.
Active, scientifically based management of our National Forests is grinding to a halt under the burden of these obstacles and funding shortages. Several House and Senate bills have recently been introduced to reform federal forest management (see below for additional information), but none appear likely to pass both chambers. The Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society are still working with congressional staff in an effort to craft worthwhile legislation that would receive bipartisan and bicameral support. Meanwhile, identical House and Senate bills are being considered to address wildfire disaster funding.
What You Can Do
At this point, Congress needs to hear from our members that forestry reform and a comprehensive wildfire funding solution are too important to be overlooked amidst the current preoccupation on other issues. Please consider contacting your members of Congress or their staff and addressing any number of the talking points below. Placing a call to your local office is usually more effective than writing an email, but any effort may help. Add to the talking points with personal stories of how you’ve been affected by the lack of active forest management. And remember – be firm but polite, thank them for their time, and assure them that these are top priorities that you will continue to track and follow up on accordingly. You can find contact information and background on your Representative here, and the same for your Senators here.
- This is a bipartisan bill that would stabilize USFS and DOI budgets for federal wildfire fighting activities. It is the only comprehensivefire funding solution under consideration in Congress, because it would 1) access disaster funding, 2) address the erosion of land management agency budgets due to increasing firefighting costs, and 3) minimize the transferring/borrowing when suppression budgets run out.
- In 1995, fire management accounted for 16% of the USFS budget; today it is more than half. At the current rate of increase, it is expected to make up two-thirds of the agency’s budget by 2021.
- Wildfires are seen predominantly as a “western” issue, but have national impacts. As more funding goes to suppression, less is available for land management programs that benefit forests all over the US.
- Under budgets devastated by wildfire suppression costs, the Forest Service has reduced land management staff by 39% since 1998. Since 2001, vegetation and watershed management program funding has been reduced by 24%, and wildlife and fisheries management program funding by 18%.
I support forestry management reform to further improve the scientific management of our National Forests.
- Laws intended to protect our natural resources are instead fueling litigationagainst misunderstood but essential forest management practices.
- Across all National Forests in the eastern U.S. (USFS Regions 8 and 9), “even age” forest treatments have met only 24% of the MINIMUM goals established in forest plans. Other types of forest treatments have not been targeted as aggressively, and have come closer to reaching goal levels.
- This lack of “even age” management is causing a conservation catastrophe. More than half of bird species that breed in shrub-dominated or young forest habitats across in the Eastern U.S. have declined since 1980. Just 34% of birds that breed in mature forests have declined.
- Numerous bills have been introduced with intent to address these problems, but I support any effort necessary to reach bipartisan support for needed reforms.
Particularly worthwhile forestry reform measures include each of the initiatives described in some detail below.
- Fix the “Cottonwood” court decision, argued by both the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Department of Justice under the Obama Administration as a disastrous ruling. Title I of the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act (2068) proposed a common-sense, bipartisan supported remedy. It would focus the conservation benefits of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by ensuring consultation occurs on any listed endangered species during creation of forest management plans, and then allow those plans – which require a considerable level of effort and public engagement in addition to any USFWS consultation – to continue to provide broad management guidance. Future consultation would still be required at the project level.
- Direct the Secretary of Agriculture to create a Categorical Exclusion (Cat Ex) to specifically focus benefits on forest-dependent Species of Greatest Conservation Need, avoiding vague or broadly worded provisions regarding timber removal. Such a Cat Ex has never been included in introduced legislation. The Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society would happily work with Congress to see such a measure included and introduced under your leadership.
- Create a pilot arbitration program based on the best ideas presented in the contrasting approaches of Title III of the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act (2068) and Title III of the Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2936). I encourage you to identify components of an arbitration program that can achieve bipartisan support and compromise, promote management accountability, and prevent continued excessive litigation that disrupts scientific forest management and preoccupies the courts.
- Promote collaboratives, which involve diverse stakeholders working with USFS staff, by expediting National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review of collaborative-developed forest projects similar to the proposal in Title I of the Resilient Federal Forests Act (R. 2936). The collaboratives involve exhaustive deliberation of options for meeting multiple-use objectives. It makes sense that the NEPA review should only be required to consider the option of the selected action of the proposed project compared with the consequences of taking no action.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any feedback, questions, or concerns about this issue,
Brent A. Rudolph, Ph.D.
National Director of Conservation Policy
Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society