The Biden Administration submitted to Congress the President’s budget for fiscal year 2024, which includes significant funding increases for wildland fire and hazardous fuels management. These investments will help address the nation’s wildfire crisis and implement comprehensive reforms for the wildland fire management workforce that provide stronger financial and health support to wildland firefighters, who are the backbone of wildland fire management nationwide.
The budget request for the Forest Service’s wildland fire and hazardous fuels management totals $2.97 billion, which is $647 million, or 28 percent above the comparable 2023 enacted level. The FY 2024 budget request for the Department of the Interior’s wildland fire and hazardous fuels management totals $1.33 billion, which is $233.1 million, or 21 percent, above the comparable 2023 level.
The workforce reforms proposed in the FY 2024 budget request will increase federal and tribal firefighters’ pay, invest more in their mental and physical health and wellbeing, improve their housing options, and expand the number of permanent firefighters.
These reforms build on the temporary pay increase provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The permanent pay reforms require authorizing legislation, and the Administration is committed to working with congressional leaders on developing a comprehensive legislative proposal.
Last year, nearly 69,000 wildfires burned more than 7.5 million acres across the country. On average, wildfire activity, severity, size, and cost are escalating.
A crowd of about 100 people gathered at the Oregon Board of Forestry’s March meeting to blast a proposed habitat conservation plan that would restrict logging on 640,000 acres of state forests west of the Cascade Range.
Opponents of the plan testified that reductions in timber harvest will threaten high-paying jobs and decrease revenue for essential services in rural communities, including schools, public safety, fire protection and health care.
While discussion of the plan was not on the board’s agenda, students, loggers, industry representatives and elected officials took turns speaking during an open public comment session, urging the Department of Forestry to reconsider the plan.
“These are lifetime decisions,” said Courtney Bangs, a Clatsop County commissioner. “Take time, do the work (and) get the best deal, before these communities are gutted.”
The plan is essentially an agreement between the state and two federal agencies — NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — that the forests will be managed to mitigate harm to 17 species that are either listed as endangered, or could be listed. That list includes the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, coastal marten, red tree vole, three different salamanders and 10 species of fish. In exchange, the plan protects land managers from potential lawsuits in cases of “incidental take” if management activities result in killing species or destroying habitat.
The state has an obligation to harvest timber on state forests as a source of revenue for 15 Forest Trust Land counties. About two-thirds of the money from these timber sales goes to taxing districts in the counties, and the Oregon Department of Forestry keeps the remaining one-third for its budget.
Most of the 640,000 acres in question are in Clatsop and Tillamook counties, along the north Oregon coast.
The state initially estimated it would harvest between 225.4 million and 226.2 million board feet of timber annually after the plan is implemented. However, new figures released in February prescribed a harvest of 165 million to 182.5 million board feet annually for the next two years. That reduction has raised alarm from officials who worry the lost revenue will have devastating effects on the rural economy.
A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would require the U.S. Forest Service to expedite treatment of more than 70 million acres of National Forest lands, in consultation with states, that have been identified as needing treatment to reduce the threat of insect and disease infestations and catastrophic wildfires.
“The lack of active forest management is changing the role of forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources on National Forest lands in many Western states,” said Tim O’Hara, vice president of government affairs for the Forest Resources Association. Tree mortality rates are greater on Forest Service lands than non-federal public and private lands, he adde.
“Senator Thune’s legislation, Expediting Forest Restoration and Recovery Act, would expedite forest management that would improve carbon sequestration and storage on National Forests lands across the U.S while supporting rural forest-based economies,” said O’Hara.
The legislation would:
The Forest Service has designated approximately 74 million acres nationwide as insect and disease treatment areas, but only a fraction of those acres have been treated, according to the National Association of State Foresters. The lack of active management on federal lands is threatening the continued flow of social, economic, and ecological values from federal forests as millions of acres continue to be altered by insects, diseases, and uncharacteristic wildfires.
Several groups of associations, cities and counties are attempting to challenge a case in Montana they say has the potential to take away an important tool from firefighting efforts at a time when Western U.S. wildfires are worsening.
The groups, led by the National Wildfire Suppression Association, filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Missoula to intervene as defendants in a case that seeks to enjoin the U.S. Forest Service from using aerial fire retardant. They were part of several groups that include the wildfire-prone counties, as well as towns like Paradise, California, which was destroyed by massive the 2018 Camp Fire.
The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed a suit against the Forest Service last fall, arguing the agency’s discharge of aerial fire retardant into the nation’s navigable waters violates the Clean Water Act.
According to the suit, between 2012 and 2019, the Forest Service discharged retardant on at least 459 occasions totaling more than 761,000 gallons from aircraft directly into national forest navigable waters. The suit calls fire retardant a pollutant, noting that it is composed of mainly inorganic fertilizers (ammonium phosphates) or other inorganic salts (magnesium chloride), which kill or damage aquatic species and have adverse impacts on the waterways. The lawsuit also argues that the impacts go beyond environmental to include aesthetic, scientific and recreational impacts.
The suit seeks to halt the Forest Service from using the retardant on waterways, as well as to recover costs and expenses from the legal action.
This motion by opponents argues that an injunction against the aerial fire retardant is not in the public interest and that the potential harm to communities if aerial fire retardant drops are halted includes massive economic damages and potential losses of life. The retardant “unquestionably reduces fire’s rate of spread, intensity, and danger to the public,” the motion states.
ON THE COVER
Paul Jones started WyEast Forestry Management with only a rented bulldozer. A little over 10 years later, the business has evolved and grown to include three distinct companies
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