Climate change ravaging Forest Service budget for wildfire mitigation, officials say

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenMarch 7, 2012

The warming climate is breeding more beetle-ravaged forest and prolonged fire seasons, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified before a Senate committee on Tuesday, as he fielded questions about the White House's proposed agency budget for fiscal year 2013.

"We've been doing research on the effects of a changing climate to the vegetation on our nation's forests for over two decades," he told the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources in Washington, D.C. "When it comes to fire, we're definitely seeing much longer fire seasons in many parts of the country, another 60 or 70 days longer than what we used to experience."

The Forest Service is not only dealing with an uptick in the number of wildfires, wind storms, droughts and other extreme weather as a result of climate change. "We're also seeing much more severe fire behavior than we've ever experienced in the past," Tidwell noted.

A forest decimated by mountain pine bark beetles.

The wildfire risk is heightened as beetles make their way through the forests, sucking the life from trees and leaving dead, dried wood in their wake. The expansion of bark beetles "has started to slow a little bit," he said, but "we're still seeing about an additional 600,000 acres infested each year, so we're going to have to continue to maintain this focus for the next few years."

Referencing a new Forest Service report - "Increasing the Pace of Restoration and Job Creation on our National Forests" (pdf) - Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, said that expanding the market for forest products from national forests will require streamlining contracting procedures and federal cooperation with private companies that want to use beetle-kill wood for commercial purposes.

"The private sector is key to dealing with this epidemic," Udall said.

The federal government already is collaborating with communities and businesses to create wood and biomass supply for forest products, bioenergy production and home construction.

"We have examples all over the country now where these collaborative efforts are coming together," Tidwell said. "People understand the type of work that needs to be done."

He said the Forest Service is doing more with less by broadening its National Environmental Policy Act requests to include larger landscapes and by emphasizing agency efficiency and flexibility.

The Forest Service budgets about $100 million each year to mitigate bark beetles in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and South Dakota, he said.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, expressed frustration that politics are polluting scientific discussions. He said it only makes sense for Congress to begin incorporating the effects of climate change into budgetary decisions.

"To me it is so obvious the costs of climate change that we are already paying, and these are never factored in when we talk about the costs of things like burning more coal or burning dirtier oil," Franken said. "This debate that has been going on in this country – it saddens me sometimes when what your scientists are telling us is called a hoax. I don't know if it's for political gain or to curry favor with big donors who can fund super PACs or what it is, but there is a climate-change-denial culture among some of my colleagues that I find very disturbing."

President Obama's budget requests $4.86 billion for the Forest Service, an increase of less than one-half of one percent over the 2012 appropriated level. The restoration of lands impacted by beetles, disease, fire, urban sprawl and warming temperatures are heavily emphasized.

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