Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chaired an Interior Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to examine the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request for the U.S. Forest Service. At the hearing, Senator Murkowski questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen on the spruce beetle epidemic occurring in Southcentral Alaska, wildfire suppression and response training initiatives, as well as the need to improve timber production on the Tongass.
“The spruce bark beetle is back in Alaska and on steroids this time,” said Senator Murkowski. “About fifteen years ago, they decimated the Kenai Peninsula and are now moving into the Mat-Su Valley. One of the problems with the beetle is it destroys the health of the tree and makes them more vulnerable to fire. Yet, the [Fiscal Year 2020] budget proposes a 25 percent cut to the Forest Service Bark Beetle Initiative. There are private lands right next to your lands; the bugs don’t care.”
The Forest Service’s Bark Beetle Initiative assists with insect outbreak monitoring and mitigation. Chief Christiansen acknowledged that the rate of the beetle spread has accelerated in Southeast Alaska over the last three years and announced that the Forest Service would be transferring $2 million in carry over funds from the agency’s State & Private Forestry accounts to the Alaska Division of Forestry to remove hazard trees and build fuel breaks in Alaska.
Senator Murkowski also pressed Chief Christiansen about proposed cuts to the agency’s National Fire Capacity and Rural Fire Capacity programs, which trained over 119,000 firefighters last year and provided over $17 million to local firefighting departments to upgrade and purchase new firefighting equipment.
“Both of these programs significantly reduce the overall federal fire suppression cost by really letting the state and local departments get in there and move first, attacking these wildfires when they are small,” said Senator Murkowski. “I just don’t get why you would undercut this funding at the state and local levels. It seems to me that this gives you extraordinary leverage with just a little bit of funding. What is the rationale behind this cut?”
Chief Christensen acknowledged the value of the programs but noted that tough choices had to be made due to the need address conditions of the nation’s forests while also meeting the administration’s instructions to reduce the budget by five percent. Chief Christensen also said she would be happy to work with Senator Murkowski on this concern.
Senator Murkowski also discussed the implications of the Roadless Rule and slow pace of timber production in the Tongass National Forest. Last year, under the 2016 Forest Plan and the loss of the Roadless exemption, the volume of timber sold on the Tongass dropped to 31 percent of Forest Service targets.
“I want to reiterate to you that every elected official representing Southeast Alaska supports an exemption— from the Governor to the state legislators, to the delegation in Congress, this has never been a partisan issue,” said Senator Murkowski. “Alaskans know best what it takes to meet our needs and we need relief from the Roadless Rule as it currently stands.”
Chief Christiansen acknowledged the hardships Murkowski outlined and shared some of the Forest Service’s short-term and long-term plans for timber sale designs.
“We’re just trying to stay alive down there in the Tongass,” said Murkowski. “The reality is the industry has changed so much. “
Senator Murkowski also asked for a status update on the Chugach National Forest’s resource management plan revision currently underway, noting local concerns that the draft plan does not provide enough access for timber harvest, mineral development, or recreational activities.
Chief Christiansen replied that the Forest Service has heard similar concerns and that, “[the Regional Forester] is personally watching over this process and ensuring that the comments received are truly integrated in the best way we can in the final plan…that input will be considered, and you will see a difference.”