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Senators say they’ll override Trump budget cuts for wildfire, forest management

U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen (USDA via Twitter)

As the U.S. Forest Service anticipates another wildfire season that will go over budget, some members of Congress are planning to override President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts.

On Wednesday, a few members of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies grilled Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen on her plans to deal with wildfire, forest resiliency and reforestation based on the reduced budget proposed by the Trump administration.

Subcommittee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, joined with vice chair Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, in opposing Trump’s proposed $948 million cut in the Forest Service budget for fiscal year 2020.

The Trump administration proposed a $5.14 billion budget.

“Despite all we know about a changing climate and degradation of our public lands, despite the tools we gave you in the (2018 Omnibus bill) and the 2018 Farm Bill, this proposed budget fails to make the investments needed to improve the conditions of our forests and watersheds or prevent pests, disease and fire causing widespread havoc across the landscape,” Udall said.

The Trump budget makes a 16 percent cut in grant funding for state wildfire action plans, cuts research funding by $45 million and zeroes out funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Christiansen said fire experts are predicting this year’s wildfires could cost between $1.6 billion and $2.8 billion. Unfortunately, she has just $1.7 billion for fire suppression before the fiscal 2020 budget takes effect.

Murkowski said she was pleased that the new $1.95 billion wildfire budget cap adjustment will kick in for fiscal 2020, so the Forest Service won’t have to keep robbing its own coffers to pay for wildfire suppression. Congress created the cap adjustment as part of the 2018 Omnibus bill to give the agency a funding source specifically for fighting wildfires.

“It’s about more than funding wildfire suppression – it’s about making sure the Forest Service can deliver on its multiple-use mission,” Murkowski said.

An hour into the hearing, Montana Sen. Steve Daines joined the committee and questioned Christiansen on her commitment to multiple use, specifically in the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas on the Bitterroot National Forest.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana

The 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act established the two study areas and required the Forest Service to maintain their wilderness character until they were either designated by Congress as wilderness or removed from consideration. Congress has yet to take action on a number of the areas.

But in several wilderness study areas, including the Blue Joint and Sapphire, the Forest Service didn’t uphold the law, as dirt bikes trespassed on the roads and trails. Then in the 1990s, mountain bikes and more advanced all-terrain vehicles came on the scene and joined the dirt bikes.

In 1996, Friends of the Bitterroot sued the Forest Service for failing to protect wilderness study areas and won. Related lawsuits reiterated the agency’s responsibility to maintain the areas’ wilderness character.

Daines said he didn’t like a Bitterroot National Forest planning document that said managing recommended wilderness for mountain bikes was challenging.

“Forest plans in the Bitterroot and elsewhere are locking out historic uses, such as mountain biking, such as snowmobiling, in areas that are not designated as wilderness,” Daines said. “We’re trying to strike a balance as we have competing interests. Will you commit to work with interest groups and support some of the long-standing and existing access opportunities as you update this as well as other plans?”

Christiansen said she absolutely recognizes the importance of access.

“Under my watch, it will be a priority,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen’s other priority is changing how the public would be involved in Forest Service projects. She didn’t go into details, but said she expected to publish new Forest Service rules related to the National Environmental Policy Act later this summer.

“Internally, we are nearing completion of critical reforms that ease process burdens, reduce costs and break the barriers that slow our work,” Christiansen said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.