USFS head calls for stewardship contracting, warns of sequester impacts

Posted: Mar 15, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, E&E

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell yesterday urged Congress to permanently authorize an expiring program that allows proceeds from timber sales to be used for forest restoration, arguing it enjoys broad bipartisan support.

Tidwell said a recovering housing market has generated more demand for wood products, which could allow the agency to raise more revenues to fund forest restoration projects.

At a hearing before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry, Tidwell also discussed the effects of sequester cuts, the success of collaborative planning and the Bureau of Land Management's new hydraulic fracturing rule.

The hearing was called to examine the impacts of Forest Service management on rural communities.

Tidwell said it was crucial that Congress extend his agency's authority to conduct stewardship contracts, which allow it to use revenue from timber sales to fund forest restoration activities including culvert and road repairs, invasive species removals and recreation improvements. The agency's authority expires at the end of September.

In contrast to stewardship contracts, revenues from traditional timber sales go directly to the Treasury.

"It's a tool where there's strong support across the board," Tidwell said, noting that one-fourth of timber harvested in 2012 was through stewardship contracts. "The first thing would be able to get it reauthorized so that our folks know we're going to be able to continue to have this authority."

An extension of stewardship contracting was included last Congress in H.R. 6089 by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), which died on the House floor. It was also included in other House and Senate bills, including farm bills that never passed into law.

Tidwell said the authority is crucial to the Forest Service's ability to collaboratively restore landscapes at a time of shrinking federal budgets. Rural communities support stewardship contracts because they provide long-term jobs and ensure timber revenues are returned to their local forests, he said.

A witness at the hearing, Al Sample, president of the Pinchot Institute, a conservation think tank, echoed Tidwell's statement.

Permanent extension of the contracting authority is the "single most important and effective step that Congress can take to support the positive, constructive and mutually supportive long-term relationship that exists between these federal public lands and the local communities that play a critical role in their sustainable management," Sample said.

Chris Topik, director of Restoring America's Forests for the Nature Conservancy, said allowing the contracting authority to expire would kill a decade of momentum reducing the threats of wildfires and insect outbreaks.

Tidwell also said the agency's use of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which relies heavily on stewardship contracts, was paying dividends by cutting down on conflicts that for decades were commonplace on national forests.

"I can tell you today that's being replaced by constructive dialogue about 'how and why,' not 'should you or should you not,'" Tidwell said. Communities are realizing the economic benefits of restoring watersheds, for example, because they know that could cut down on the cost of providing drinking water or protecting against floods, he added.

Sequester and wildfire

Tidwell also discussed how the 5 percent across-the-board cuts known as the sequester would impact his agency's ability to manage its 193 million acres of forests and grasslands.

"The thing I worry most about is with our staffing," Tidwell said, noting potential impacts to the foresters, biologists, engineers and administrative staff who keep the agency humming.

Over the past 15 years, the agency's fire staff has significantly increased because of longer and more severe fire seasons, while the rest of the workforce has been reduced by almost 30 percent, Tidwell said. The sequester cuts could cause slower National Environmental Policy Act reviews and timber sale approvals, he added.

"There's less capacity there," he said. "We're focused on not losing more of that expertise."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month told Senate appropriators that sequestration would slash $134 million from the Forest Service's wildland fire management budget and that 200,000 fewer acres would be thinned to reduce the risk of severe wildfires.

Also, about $78 million would be cut from the National Forest System, which could hurt those who hike, drill mines or graze cattle on national forestlands, in addition to forest and watershed restoration activities, Vilsack said.

Tidwell yesterday said the cuts would force the agency to shed as many as 500 wildland firefighters from its force of 10,480 and to use 50 to 70 fewer fire engines in 2013.

"We'll start the year with a few less resources," Tidwell said. While the agency can shift the location of firefighters, engines and air tankers to respond to changing threats, those maneuvers will raise the cost of suppression, he said.

"If you have fewer firefighters, fewer engines, fewer aircraft, you're always increasing the probability" that fires will get out of control, Tidwell said. "Our challenge is going to be being able to move resources around the country a little faster to make sure they are pre-positioned."

On average, fire seasons have become warmer, drier and longer, Tidwell warned. "That's what we're up against."

Hydraulic fracturing, objections rule

Tidwell was also asked to discuss a draft plan on the George Washington National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia that would ban the use of horizontal drilling, which is used to tap shale gas resources and typically also involves hydraulic fracturing. Forest Service officials have said in the past that the proposal will not set a national precedent (E&ENews PM, July 8, 2011).

"What you see in the draft plan reflects what the forest has heard from the communities, and I think it is driven by a concern sometimes of the unknowns about horizontal drilling along with the fracking," Tidwell said.

He said there is an opportunity to provide some reassurances to the public through BLM's draft fracturing rule, which would require disclosure of chemicals injected underground and ensure flowback is properly managed and wells are properly reinforced.

"Those are the sort of things that will help our communities understand that this type of operation can be done in a way that is environmentally sound," Tidwell said.

After the hearing, Tidwell also said he expects the agency will soon release a final rule to speed up the approval of projects on Forest Service lands (Greenwire, Aug. 8, 2012).

The proposed regulation unveiled last August would apply a "pre-decisional objections" process to all activities implementing land management plans that require an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.

If finalized, the proposal could mean swifter decisions on timber sales, restoration projects and special use permits, among others.

"I'm hoping that a final rule will be out there in the very near future, within the next month or so," Tidwell said.

The new regulation -- developed in response to a legislative rider Congress passed in its fiscal 2012 omnibus appropriations bill -- would implement an objections process the agency has used since 2004 to expedite thinning projects that reduce wildfire risk.

That procedure was developed under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 to allow people to object to projects before a final decision is made. But it also limits who can file such objections and when.

In general, objections must be filed within 30 days of the agency's draft decision, as opposed to appeals being filed after a final decision is made. In addition, only those who provided National Environmental Policy Act comments on a project are allowed to file objections.

"I think it supports this whole collaborative environment we're building," Tidwell said.

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