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Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today chaired a hearing on the President’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget request for the U.S. Forest Service. Senator Feinstein chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was the primary witness.

During the hearing, Chairman Feinstein touched on the following topics: the Forest Service’s proposed new Integrated Resource Restoration account, firefighting and prevention budgets, Quincy Library Group, and other Forest Service operating programs.

Following are Senator Feinstein’s remarks prepared for delivery:

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  On behalf of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, I welcome you to our hearing on the Fiscal Year 2011 budget request for the U.S. Forest Service.

I’m pleased to welcome Tom Tidwell, the new Chief of the Forest Service.   

Chief Tidwell, this is the first time you’ve had the opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee, so I want to say how much I am looking forward to working with you.   And given all the changes proposed in your budget request, it’s clear that we have a lot to discuss.
The President’s request provides $5.38 billion for the Forest Service, an increase of $61 million, or 1 percent, over the Fiscal Year 2010 enacted level.

Despite the constraints reflected in this budget, I am pleased to see a number of important programs receive increases.   

In particular, the budget request provides a total of $2.64 billion for all wildland fire activities, an increase of $129 million over the enacted level.  That’s a 5 percent increase.   Within that amount, hazardous fuels reduction activities are funded at $349 million, roughly equal to this year’s level.

The budget also proposes $1.59 billion to fund operations for the nation’s forests and grasslands, a 2 percent increase.

State and private forestry programs receive a 4 percent increase, for a total of $321 million.  And land acquisition programs increase by 16 percent, for a total of $74 million.

There are also a number of program cuts.

Funding for construction and maintenance of facilities, roads and trails is cut by 21 percent compared to the enacted level, for a total of $438 million.   

Most notably, road construction and maintenance is cut by 31 percent, for a total of $164 million. This cut comes despite the fact that the Service reports a $3 billion backlog in road maintenance as part of its budget request.  

Finally, funding for State and volunteer fire assistance programs is slashed by 29 percent, for a total of $57 million.

Turning to the details, I’d like to focus in particular on two major changes that are part of this request.   One is the proposal to combine several of the agency’s land management programs into a new Integrated Resource Restoration account.  The other is a major restructuring of the agency’s fire preparedness and suppression accounts.

Starting with wildland fire programs, the budget requests a total of $1.5 billion for fire suppression activities. That’s an increase of $90 million – or 6 percent – over the enacted level.   

That amount includes $1.2 billion as part of fire suppression account and $333 million that has been shifted to the preparedness account.    

For years, the Forest Service has been charging a portion of its preparedness costs to the fire suppression account, hiding the true cost of the agency’s readiness needs.   I am pleased to see this Administration shift funds to properly pay for these activities within the preparedness account – where they belong.   

All told, the budget requests $1 billion for firefighter salaries, training and equipment, a 49 percent increase compared to 2010.

While I do support the level provided in this budget for fire suppression, I am concerned that this request divides firefighting funds into three overly complicated accounts.  The request includes:

  • $595 million for base fire suppression programs;
  • $291 million for the FLAME Fund – passed by Congress last year –  which the Secretary can use to cover the cost of fighting large wildfires; and
  • $282 million for a third account – the Wildland Fire Contingency Reserve – which is a reserve fund that can only be accessed by Presidential declaration.  

I’m afraid I just don’t understand the need to have three separate fire suppression accounts, so I look forward to having the chance to discuss your proposal further.

An even more significant change in this budget is the proposal to merge three National Forest System programs to create a new, $694 million dollar line item called the ‘Integrated Resource Restoration’ program.  

I understand that the Administration has proposed this initiative to provide flexibility to fund restoration work it plans to do on the ground.  However, I’m concerned that the budget request leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

First, I would like to talk about why the Administration feels such a significant restructuring of the budget is necessary to accomplish your restoration goals.  I am concerned that collapsing three programs into one huge new account would reduce transparency and accountability regarding how program dollars are spent.
I’d also like to discuss how the Forest Service proposes to allocate funds for this new initiative – particularly how the agency plans to implement a new, $50 million dollar Priority Watersheds and Jobs Stabilization initiative to fund large-scale restoration projects and create jobs in rural communities.

Finally, I’d like to discuss the impact that these proposed changes will have on the availability of timber supply from national forests.   Chief Tidwell, I am hoping you can provide some clarity on exactly how much timber the Forest Service plans to produce in Fiscal Year 2011.  I’d also like to talk about how your agency plans to implement such a large increase in the use of stewardship contracting.

These are important questions which I hope you and your staff will help us work through as we begin the process of drafting an appropriations bill.   I also look forward to discussing a number of issues that are important to national forests in California this morning. Now I’d like to turn to my Ranking Member, Senator Alexander, for any comments that he wishes to make.”