Turning an Aircraft Carrier? Report on Senate Farm Bill and Approps Hearing: Guest Post by Dave Mertz

Note from Sharon: There’s all kinds of topics (porky and  non) at this hearing- from firefighter mental health to a climate “hub” in Hawaii. Please add your own observations and interesting news takes in the comments.

Congressional Hearings for the Farm Bill and Agency Appropriations Watching congressional hearings is a really interesting way to find things out that you may otherwise never hear about. Over the past couple of months, there
have been Senate hearings for the Farm Bill with Associate Chief Angela Coleman, and Senate Appropriations hearings with Chief Randy Moore. I found the April 18 th “Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources about the FY2024 budget request for the Forest Service” Chief Moore testimony:  to be particularly interesting.

A common theme of all of these hearings is holding the Forest Service accountable to increase timber outputs. Numerous bills have been proposed to hold the Forest Service’s feet to the fire. Too many to even mention here. It’s
interesting that this interest in accountability is coming from Republicans, Democrats and an Independent. They all want to know what the Forest Service is doing with the billions of dollars that have been appropriated to them in the recent past, and why timber outputs have not seen a resulting increase. They all express a concern in dealing with the wildfire crisis.

Chief Moore primarily gives three reasons why there has not been a dramatic increase and why the timber volume sold target was not met last fiscal year. Now, we all know the old metaphor that you don’t turn an aircraft carrier on a dime, and in this instance, the Forest Service is the aircraft carrier. Chief Moore says that both wildfires and storms wreaked havoc on areas that were planned for timber sales, and this drastically impacted their target accomplishment.

He went on to say that they are having real difficulty in hiring. The process is not working well and continues to be cumbersome. Also, they are losing employees through attrition, almost as quick as they can hire them. He provides several reasons for this, that pay levels are a problem as well as housing in the locations where they need people to work. It’s interesting that Chief Moore did not mention NEPA and lawsuits as reasons for the lack of target accomplishment.

Is it finally time to admit that the Albuquerque Service Center was a big mistake? Before ASC, the Forest Service had a relatively well-oiled hiring machine. I believe it could have held its own in comparison to most other Federal Agencies. Chief Moore oversees ASC, if it has serious problems then he needs to fix it. It would take a lot to finally admit that ASC was a mistake, but maybe that is what needs to happen. With regards to housing, the Forest Service used to be in the business of providing housing, but then it was seen as time to move on from that.  Much of the government housing was sold off. Now that is not looking like such a great decision.

Chief Moore says that they have a plan to get up to 4 billion board feet by FY 2027. Sen. Angus King from Maine stated that Eisenhower took Europe in 11 months, why would it take the Forest Service so long to get to 4 billion board feet? Interesting question. It’s also interesting that almost all of these Senators expressed concerns about wildfires but there was little said about increasing prescribed fire and pre-commercial thinning. If they were truly interested in reducing wildfire threats, there could be a whole lot of mitigation through those two methods in comparison to cutting sawtimber-sized trees.

The Forest Service is in a tough spot. For years they stated that if they were just provided with enough money (Chief Moore states that they still need more) they could address the wildfire crisis. Just like the dog who never expected to catch the car, and when they finally did, they didn’t know what to do with it. Chief Moore received some hard questions in this hearing. I felt a little sorry for him. He can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat and fix the wildfire crisis overnight, but the Forest Service needs to be upfront about what they can actually do and what the realistic timeframes will be.

Dave Mertz retired from the Black Hills National Forest in 2017 as the Forest’s Natural Resource Staff Officer.  Over the course of his career with the FS, he was a Forester, Silviculturist, Forest Fire Management Officer and a Fire Staff Officer.  Since retirement, he has stayed involved in Forest Management issues, with a particular interest in the Black Hills NF’s timber program