U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said his agency is trying to manage 60 million acres in need of restoration with 40 percent fewer staff and dollars than he had a decade ago.
In an interview with the Missoulian on Tuesday, Tidwell the agency would depend on partnerships with states and private partners to nurture those ecosystems, protect them from wildfire and provide jobs and recreation for the people who live near them.
“We need to focus on large landscapes, where we’re treating private land and national forest at the same time,” Tidwell said. “And we really need to focus on the outcomes we're after – healthy, resilient forests that withstand disease outbreaks, fires, drought conditions that we’ll all face in the future. That’s the thing that produces economic activity that sustains communities and eliminates some of the conflict we’re seeing. That’s something we’ve been trying to address for decades in the agency.”
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Tidwell said a recent inspector general’s report criticizing the Forest Service’s unscientific way of prioritizing what places would get hazardous forest fuels treated would be addressed. But he added that the agency faces a spreading map of places it needs to defend.
“There are 44 million homes adjacent to or near national forest,” Tidwell said. “That’s a lot of wildland-urban interface. We’re focusing on putting our limited resources in the best places to make a difference.
“But we’re also dealing with wildfires that can go 5 miles in a couple hours, or 12 miles in one burning period,” he added. “That’s the challenge of this. Yes, this area immediately adjacent to the forest is highest priority. But depending on the condition of the forest, there are other areas farther out that are high priority, too.”
Any chance to bring more resources or personnel to the question depends on what Congress allows the Forest Service to do. This fall, both the House of Representative and Senate will consider separate bills that could change those resources. Tidwell did not discuss specific bills, but he said the agency has advised members of Congress of its interests.
“The public has to have opportunities to be engaged in the decision-making process,” Tidwell said. “We’re concerned about things that limit public participation. NEPA (The National Environmental Policy Act) is a very good law. Can we do things to be more effective and efficient in our documentation? Yes. But we have to be careful."
Tidwell added the agency was watching several bills that might impose timber harvest requirements on all some or all national forests.
“When you focus on harvest, that sends the wrong message,” Tidwell said. “It sends the message that timber is what you’re focused on, versus improving forest health or ecological resilience. That creates more controversy and questions about what you’re really after.”