Washington—In testimony in March before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resource and Environment Robert Bonnie said the Obama Administration continues to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and management on public forest lands, but the shift of funds from management, recreation, and conservation programs to fight wildfires threatens to cripple the agency.

“The U.S. Forest Service is accelerating restoration and management of the national forests, despite budgetary challenges, though we agree more must be done,” said Bonnie.  “The good news is that the agency is making significant progress.”

Bonnie said the Forest Service is achieving results despite the fact that since 1998, National Forest System staff has been reduced by over a third. Last year, he said, the Forest Service met or exceeded all of its targets related to forest management on the National Forests.

Across the country, said the Under Secretary, the Forest Service is investing in collaboration, landscape scale projects and innovative approaches to restore our forests:

The agency has funded 23 projects through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.  Through the CFLRP, the agency and partners have made significant progress in reducing wildfire threats while exceeding the five-year target for timber volume sold by nearly 25%. In addition to making 1.45 million acres more resilient to wildfire, the program improved the health of 1.33 million acres of wildlife habitat, and helped local economies support an average of 4,360 jobs each year.

The Forest Service is developing larger, landscape-scale projects like the 200,000 acre project in the Black Hills to restore Ponderosa pine.

The Forest Service is implementing new authorities in the Farm Bill. With input from Governors, last summer the Forest Service identified 46 million acres of lands to be designated as impacted by insects and disease, and recently added more than 700,000 acres in Washington State.

The Forest Service is partnering with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to engage in 28 restoration projects across private and public lands.

Through the Forest Products Lab, the Forest Service is investing in markets for woody biomass, solid wood products, and other forest products to support a viable forest industry.

“These examples reflect the growing consensus around the need to restore our National Forests,” said Bonnie.  “We have moved to a more collaborative approach that brings forest industry, local communities, conservation groups and other partners together with the Forest Service to develop plans and projects that make our forests more resilient to a variety of threats.”

Additionally, Bonnie noted that in 2014, the Forest Service exceeded its targets by producing over 2.8 billion board feet of timber.  The timber harvest, he said, has increased 18% since 2008.

Bonnie told the committee, however, that the way the Forest Service budgets for fire suppression is crippling the agency.

“Our fire seasons are 78 days longer than they were three decades ago.  Fires are increasingly larger, more catastrophic, and more expensive,” said Bonnie.   “In 1995, the agency spent 16% of its budget on firefighting.  Today, the figure approaches half of our annual budget.”

The Under Secretary said that in most years, the Forest Service is forced to transfer dollars from non-fire budget line item—recreation, research, conservation, and forest management—to pay for fire suppression.

“If there is one action Congress could take to further forest restoration on the National Forests, it is to change the way we budget for fire,” Bonnie said.

The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, now pending in Congress, would end the practice of fire borrowing.  That legislation, which is mirrored by a proposal in President Obama’s budget, would allow the agency to increase the number of watersheds and acres treated while increasing timber production, Bonnie said.

Secure Rural Schools

The Under Secretary also pressed for reauthorization the Secure Rural Schools program, which provides payments to eligible states and rural counties to help fund public schools and roads and has provided funding to counties for community wildfire protection planning, emergency search and rescue reimbursement, and Firewise programs. Congress failed to reauthorize the program last year, but the Obama Administration has asked that it be restored in this year’s spending bill.

The mission of the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20% of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80% of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.

Note: 76% of Saguche County is public land.