Vilsack Also Reiterates Need for Fire Funding Solution as Projected Cost of Fighting Wildfire Exceeds This Year's Budget
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced action to help 94 national forest areas in 35 states to address insect and disease threats that weaken forests and increase the risk of forest fire. These areas are receiving an official designation that will provide the Forest Service, working collaboratively with stakeholders, additional tools and flexibility to more efficiently plan and accomplish restoration treatments in those areas. Vilsack announced the designations in Denver where he discussed additional efforts to help better prepare for and combat the threat of wildfire.
"USDA and the Forest Service are working to improve the health of our national forests and reduce the risk of forest fire," said Vilsack. "The designations announced today, made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, will support the Forest Service's ability to work with partners to restore areas within the National Forest System that have been impacted by insects and disease."
The new Farm Bill amends the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 to allow the Forest Service to more quickly plan projects for insect and disease treatments within designated areas, in an effort to increase the pace and scale of restoration across the National Forest System. Using the new tools in the Farm Bill, restoration projects in these designated areas have to be developed in collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders and must meet environmental safeguards.
The Forest Service will use the authority to work collaboratively with States, Tribes, partners, stakeholders and the public to develop and implement restoration projects within designated areas that reduce the risk of insect and disease infestations along with drought. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell designated over 45 million acres* of the National Forest System in response to requests from governors whose states are experiencing, or are at risk of, an insect or disease epidemic. Insect and disease damage makes forests more susceptible to wildfire.
"Working with local partners to combat insect and disease infestation has long been one of our top priorities, and this new authority gives us additional tools to implement landscape scale projects," said Chief Tidwell. "We will continue our commitment to involve the public as we develop and implement projects in these areas."
In addition, Vilsack also announced today another Farm Bill initiative to help remove insect infected trees from National Forest Service lands. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, administered by the Farm Service Agency, supports the harvesting and transporting of forest residue to an energy facility. These payments are designed for energy generation while reducing fire, insect and disease threats on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. USDA announced that the program has been reauthorized for $25 million annually with funding becoming available on June 9th.
Vilsack also discussed the need for Congress to approve a provision in the Obama Administration's 2015 budget proposal that creates a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when costs of fighting fires exceed Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets, as is expected to happen this year. A May report showed that the cost of fighting fires could reach nearly $1.6 billion this year, more than $500 million over the Forest Service's firefighting budget.
When actual firefighting costs exceed firefighting budgets, the Forest Service has to engage in what's known as "fire transfer," where funding for fire suppression is transferred mid-year from non-fire programs, including forest management activities that treat areas impacted by insects and disease and reduce the incidence and severity of future wildfires.
In the most recent two fiscal years, the Forest Service had to transfer $440 million and $505 million respectively from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Over the last 12 years, a total of $3.2 billion was shifted from other programs that accomplish important forest health objectives. This year the Forest Service projects that it will run out of funds to fight wildfires before the end of the wildfire season, triggering the need for transfers from other accounts.
"The President's budget proposal, and similar bipartisan legislation before Congress, would solve a recurring problem of having to transfer money from forest restoration and other Forest Service accounts to pay the costs of fighting wildfires," said Vilsack. "USDA will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, but it is not in the interest of forest health to transfer funds from forest restoration that can prevent future fires."
The effects of a warming climate and droughts have ripened conditions for insect and disease epidemics to take root. Approximately 81 million acres of the nation's forests are at risk of insects and diseases based on the 2012 National Insect and Disease Risk Map and approximately 58 million acres of National Forest System lands are at risk of intense wildfire. Additionally, Forest Service scientists predict that fire seasons could regularly exceed 12 to 15 million acres burned annually. Not only do these conditions and trends pose risks to surrounding communities, they could impact drinking water, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities and many other benefits provided by the nation's forests. Landscape scale treatments in the insect and disease designated areas will help adapt forests and watersheds to the effects of a changing climate while lowering the risks of impacts from catastrophic wildfire.
The Farm Bill supports a wide range of agency efforts already underway to increase the pace and scale of restoration, including the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, Cohesive Fire Strategy, Western Bark Beetle Strategy, the Integrated Resource Restoration Program, Watershed Condition Framework, and implementation of the 2012 National Forest System Land Management Planning Rule.
*For more information about the insect and disease designations, including specific acres and forests by state, please visit http://www.fs.fed.us/farmbill/index.shtml.