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Bipartisan support for forest restoration will save lives, support Jobs and improve water resources

Clean drinking water, wildfire safe communities, improved habitats for wildlife — just some of the benefits we all realize from sustained efforts to restore forests.  Restoration hits home for all of us because it delivers benefits we want and need.  Many people — at times even with seemingly different concerns — are willing to come together and work together because of shared interests in sustaining the benefits of forest restoration.

Last year, the Forest Service continued to accelerate the pace of restoration, treating more than 4.6 million acres of land, an area larger than the state of New Jersey and a nine percent increase (400,000 acres) compared to 2011. These treatments reduced the wildfire threat to communities, improved wildlife and fish habitat and produced 2.8 billion board feet of timber and biomass, enough for 93,000 single-family homes.  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 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year.

{mosads}Restoration work is also an exceptionally good source of jobs and economic opportunity. According to one study, every million dollars invested in restoration-related activities generates from 13 to 29 jobs and more than $2 million in economic activity. That compares favorably with investments in other sectors, such as oil and gas production.

The Forest Service continues to accomplish so much in part thanks to its outstanding collaborative relationships with many partners.  New and extended authorities, such as the finalization of the forest planning rule, streamlining environmental analysis processes, to stewardship contracts, and new tools provided in the 2014 Farm Bill have allowed the Forest Service to work more efficiently and extensively with partners and get more work done on the ground. The Forest Service has made great progress; however, there is a limit to the gains that can be realized through efficiencies and partnerships alone. The Forest Service has reached a tipping point.  

Over the last few decades, wildland fire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown hotter, drier and longer and the frequency, size, and severity of wildland fires have increased. The Forest Service now spends half of its budget on fire management activities and that has real implications on the restoration activities that would help prevent catastrophic fires in the first place. Wildland fire suppression activities are currently funded entirely within the Forest Service budget, based on a 10-year rolling average that continues to increase, consuming a growing portion of the agency’s budget. This problem is made worse in many years as fighting fires costs more than was appropriated for that year, requiring transfers of additional dollars from already depleted accounts to pay for firefighting, a practice referred to as “fire transfer.”

Today, I am encouraged that there is broad consensus that we must change the way we pay for wildfire suppression and I appreciate the efforts from Congress to resolve this issue.  The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, already introduced in the House and Senate, is an important step forward in addressing the funding problems. The proposed legislation, which mirrors a similar proposal in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, would provide a fiscally responsible mechanism to treat wildfires more like other natural disasters, end “fire transfers” and partially replenish the ability to restore resilient forests and protect against future fire outbreaks.  The bill would also increase the acres the Forest Service could restore annually by one million acres—reducing wildfire threat to more communities and firefighters, improving fisheries and wildlife habitat and increase timber outputs by 300 million board feet annually.

This will take a big lift, but Congress appears to be poised to fix this problem by finding a lasting solution that provides funding certainty for fire suppression and protects the Forest Service’s capability to conserve our national forests and grasslands for generations to come. With unprecedented challenges facing us, the Forest Service is committed to sustaining and restoring America’s forests and grasslands to deliver a full range of benefits for generations to come, even at a time of elevated stresses and disturbances. Our focus remains on maintaining the public trust by using collaboration to restore the ecological resiliency of our nation’s forests.

Tidwell is chief of the U.S. Forest Service.


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