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Sen. Mark Udall questions forest service chief about budget cuts, sequester

Published: April 16, 2013, 3:16 pm, by Ryan Handy

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell Tuesday about how the agency plans to grapple with budget cuts that could impact its ability to fight fire this season.

The forest service expects to add next generation, or modernized air tankers, to its fleet this month, but will still have to deal with cuts to its fire suppression programs. In short, although it has yet to get seriously underway, wildfire season 2013 could be an expensive endeavor for the agency.

As of last week, the 2013 budget was a done deal–and the forest service announced that it will be cutting funds to its fire suppression program by 37 percent.  For the committee of senators from Oregon, Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota, that will come as big blow, particularly as the country gears up for another potentially record-breaking wildfire season.

Both fire suppression and preparedness funds were cut, Tidwell told the committee. There are about 87 million acres of forest lands that need fuel treatment–the cutting down of trees, and thinning of forests to make them less of a breeding ground for megafires–but the forest service’s hazardous fuel reduction budget will be focused entirely on red zones, where people live.

That doesn’t mean that other forest lands won’t get the treatment they need, Tidwell said; instead, those projects will be funded by other projects besides hazardous fuels reduction.

The sequester will also impact the agencies wildfire fighting resources–it has cut 500 firefighters and between 50 and 70 engines from its pool, Tidwell said.

“We’ll start off the season with less resources,” Tidwell told the committee. “Because of the sequester it will probably just cost us more money when it comes to fire.”

Watch the two-hour committee hearing and read Tidwell’s witness statement by clicking here.