Yesterday USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue made an unprecedented and necessary appearance before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies (the Forest Service is a “related agency”) to explain the Forest Service’s proposed FY 2018 budget. “Unprecedented” because never before had a USDA Secretary appeared before this subcommittee. “Necessary” because never before did a new administration have only one USDA political appointee in place by budget time.
Here are my takeaways from the hearing.
1) Secretary Perdue is glib and personable. He’s also an experienced and crafty politician who is not above fudging the numbers. When committee members challenged him on proposed steep cuts in the Forest Service’s budget, he replied that money to manage the national forest system would go up 16%. What he didn’t say is that this increase is due entirely to shifting over $350 million in fuels treatment from the wildland fire account to the national forest system account. Compared to FY 2017, the national forest system budget actually takes a 7.5% cut, as shown below:
2) Chief Tidwell will be looking for a new job. If Perdue’s body language towards the Chief wasn’t enough of a hint, a committee member thanked him for his years of service at the hearing’s end.
3) Senator Hubert Humphrey is feeling unsettled in his grave. Humphrey, the key architect of the National Forest Management Act, exhorted in 1976 that “The days have ended when the forest may be viewed only as trees and trees viewed only as timber.” Perdue said national forest trees are “crops.”
4) Congress doesn’t understand why or how the Forest Service got into its profligate wildfire spending mess. “Why” is because timber money dried up 25 years ago. “How” is because it can. The bureaucracy needs fire money to pay the agency’s overhead, aka, “cost pools.” Does Perdue get it? No. So far, he’s parroting former Secretary Vilsack’s plea for even more firefighting dollars.