The United States Forest Service is seeking a major budget increase this year. President Joe Biden’s preliminary budget blueprint includes a $1.7 billion increase for the federal agency managing public lands, around 35% above what it got last year, according to a spokesperson for Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
Merkley serves as chair for the Senate subcommittee considering the budget request. The subcommittee put questions to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen at a hearing on Wednesday.
Merkley opened the proceeding by recalling scenes from Oregon’s catastrophic 2020 fire season, in which 11 people died in wildfires, and more than a million acres burned.
“Fires devastated the towns of Detroit, Gates, Phoenix, Talent,” Merkley said. “I’ll never forget visiting those towns and seeing the incinerated remains.”
Prior to the hearing, the senator told OPB he supports a blueprint to increase the agency’s funding by about 35%.
“We need this large increase, both for fighting fires across the country, but perhaps more importantly, for making a very massive investment in forest management,” he said, adding that he’s advocating for a permanent fund to pay for firefighting separately from non-emergency management.
At the senate hearing, Christiansen called last year’s fire season a call to action.
“We saw the most acres burned on the Forest Service lands since the Big Burn of 1910,” she said. “In many places, forests will not come back on their own, which impacts the potential for carbon storage and limits the land’s capacity to mitigate further climate change.”
In 1995, wildfire was about 16% of the Forest Service budget. A decade later, it took up more than half of it. As OPB reported in 2018, that is not solely the product of natural disaster, drought or forest fuels. It was part of a plan.
At a hearing before House lawmakers last month, Christiansen said the agency transitioned to a new budget structure in 2021, to increase transparency in its spending. She assured representatives that USFS “understands congressional expectations for increasing accountability and oversight for fire spending.”
Christiansen called for large scale investment in forestlands, saying USFS models show the need to treat an additional 20 million acres across the West in order to make significant progress in reducing fire risks.
This week, Merkley pressed her to provide a long-awaited report to Congress by the end of this month, on how many acres are considered at high risk to wildfire.
Biden’s FY2022 budget proposal has not yet been released.