The following article was written by Marc Heller, E&E News reporter. It includes perspective from Smokey Wire contributor Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
The Forest Service is looking to shift research away from wildlife in national forests and toward wildfire management, according to budget documents.
In its proposed spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the service said it intends to eliminate research funding for fish and wildlife and close a research station in California. Staff would be reduced, although researchers would be given the opportunity to relocate within the Forest Service.
The wildlife and fish research totals $22 million this year.
“The proposed budget requires difficult decisions about what research stations and programs would continue to operate,” the Department of Agriculture said in a memo to staff, detailing the planned budget rollout. The administration presented the fiscal 2021 budget proposal to Congress on Monday.
“Making these decisions will allow the Forest Service to focus its resources on its highest priority science activities,” USDA said. “These highest priority science activities are those which make the greatest contribution to the agency’s land management responsibilities.”
In the memo, obtained by E&E News, the department told staff the proposal doesn’t mean the Forest Service is turning away from science and research, but rather that it’s realigning its research priorities to reflect the relative importance of wildfire and forest health. The proposal also would eliminate funding for research related to recreation, saving $9 million.
The forest inventory and analysis budget would climb 2%. The service would also invest more than $12.5 million to strengthen the link between research and wildfire suppression operations, the department said.
“The Forest Service will continue to be a national leader in conducting applied science to inform forest management and improve forest conditions,” USDA said.
Cutting research is likely to raise objections in Congress, particularly from Democrats who view the Trump administration as hostile to science. The department appeared to anticipate that line of inquiry, posing in a question-and-answer section of the memo: “This budget is yet another example of this Administration’s war on science. How can you justify this huge cut to research and say that you will still have enough capacity for a viable research program that will support the management of the Nation’s forests?”
The department’s answer, in part: “Selecting priority research areas on which to focus resources is essential to maintaining the quality of the Forest Service’s research enterprise and represents the agency’s commitment to producing high-quality, impactful science.”
Research on wildlife and fish directly affects Forest Service decisions on land use, including logging that has impacts on wildlife, said Chad Hanson, a forest biologist with the John Muir Project in California who is opposed to logging on federal land.
The research has sometimes been at odds with timber industry priorities, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
“Fish and wildlife research reformed Forest Service logging. But for the work of a generation of Forest Service fish and wildlife scientists, old-growth forests would all be stumps today,” Stahl said.
Other potential points of contention are the proposed closure of the Pacific Southwest Research Station in Albany, Calif., and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico. The research station in California is the smallest of the Forest Service’s five research and development stations and can be merged with the Pacific Northwest Research Station, the department said.
USDA said the proposal would cut 287 staff years, although the proposal didn’t say how many researchers would be affected. Scientists working on forest inventory and analysis, for instance, would be kept on at other facilities, the department said.
In the budget justification document presented to Congress, USDA said, “These closures would require the use of reduction in force authority, voluntary early retirement authority and voluntary separation incentive authority.”