By Noelle Straub
Washington, DC (April 2, 2008)- Senators on the powerful Appropriations Committee vowed Tuesday to reverse proposed budget cuts to the U.S. Forest Service and toyed with the idea of moving the agency from the Department of Agriculture to the Interior Department.
President Bush’s proposed 2009 budget would reduce funding for firefighter readiness, hazardous fuels reduction, law enforcement, construction and maintenance, recreation and research, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, who chairs the Interior subcommittee. “I don’t know how anyone could really consider this a serious budget proposal,” she said.
The administration requested $4.1 billion for the Forest Service, a full 8 percent below 2008 levels, Feinstein said. But she added that the cuts are actually much deeper because the budget did not fully account for increases in fixed costs, including salaries and firefighting expenses. “The way we look at it, the Forest Service is being cut nearly 15 percent,” she said.
Feinstein pledged to work with the top Republican on the subpanel, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., to undo the cuts. Allard said the Forest Service was targeted more than other agencies, which was “not justified.” He said escalating firefighting costs shouldn’t come at the expense of the agency’s other programs.
“With fire seasons becoming worse each year, I can’t understand why we would reduce the funds that go to train and equip our firefighters,” he said. “This will lower the agency’s initial attack ability and lead to more catastrophic fires.”
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said the budget request did decline, but that last year’s levels were historic highs. He said the lower request for wildfire preparedness funding reflected, in part, cost savings the agency has achieved. He also said the cuts to state and local forestry programs are offset by increased funding in the 2008 farm bill.
The Forest Service will maintain the same number of fire crews and equipment, Rey said, and its rate of extinguishing 98 percent of fires on initial attack. But asked whether the agency would have enough money to pay for fire suppression without raiding its non-fire programs for funds this year, Rey said, “Past experience would say that that’s not likely.”
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said the funding request reflected some “very difficult strategic decisions” at a time of tight budgets and that the agency continues to be a good investment.
Allard said the unequal treatment of the Forest Service’s budget made him think that moving the agency into the Interior Department might “be worth some serious thought.” The Government Accountability Office is looking into the possibility, at the request of House appropriators. Rey said the study will likely be finished late this year, leaving it to the next Congress for debate.
Rey said the variety of issues brought up by senators at the hearing aren’t ones that lend themselves to a structural fix. “No matter where the Forest Service is, it’s still going to have the problems that we’ve been discussing, and those problems aren’t going to change if we change the structure of the agency or who it reports to,” Rey said.
He also argued against establishing a separate firefighting agency. “Doing that then separates the firefighting function from the land management function and probably doesn’t buy you much in the way of program reforms or advantages,” he said. “The issue of appropriate funding for firefighting would still remain even if that kind of change was made.”
On a separate issue, senators sided with the Forest Service in its ongoing dispute with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management over which courses fulfill training qualification requirements. OPM issued rules that all courses must be through an accredited university and has refused to accept courses that the Forest Service developed with its own experts. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the confusion could cause hundreds of Forest Service employees to give up applying for positions or consider quitting, and that positions could be filled with recent college graduates with little experience.
Kimbell called it a “very serious problem” and said the agency put together a team to get employees answers on their specific situations.
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