Sonny Perdue vows to solve 'fire borrowing' to fight wildfires

 
08 September 2017

published by https://www.usatoday.com


USA - WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, speaking at the swearing-in of a new Forest Service chief Friday as 82 large wildfires raged in 10 states, said he is making the case to Congress and the White House “to fix the fire-borrowing problem once and for all.”

Fire suppression spending now exceeds 55% of the U.S. Forest Service budget and may reach $2 billion this year, Perdue said before swearing in the nation’s 18th chief forester, Tony Tooke, at an Agriculture Department headquarters ceremony.

He said the department continues to borrow funds to fight fires from accounts that are supposed to be used to manage the fuel load on forest floors. That ends up increasing the number and intensity of fires and the cost of fighting them.

“It’s like eating your seed corn,” he said. “When we leave a fuel load out there ... we’re asking for disasters ... Healthy forests, well-managed forests, are a delight.”

“I spoke very strongly because I feel very strongly about this,” Perdue said later, talking with reporters. “I’m passionate about managing an agency that’s as important as the Forest Service and having to hold back money because you feel we have to borrow that to spend it on fighting forest fires.”

“I know (hurricanes) Harvey and Irma will get a lot of the press, a lot of the camera attention, but if you’re out there in those rural areas of the Northwest and the Northern Rockies, you see the devastation and damage there first hand,” he said. “It’s unbelievable what’s happening.”

“I feel so strongly because that’s no way to manage a budget, no way to manage a department. All we’re asking for is: appropriate the money we need and can use effectively to manage our forests ahead of time.” He said 26,500 people are currently fighting fires.

Perdue said he chose Tooke, 55, to run the agency because he has worked his way up through the ranks of the Forest Service since the age of 18 and will work as a “player coach” and good “people picker.”

Perdue joked that rather than just hitting the ground running, Tooke planned to “hit the air flying” to inspect firefighting operations in Oregon and Montana this weekend. Besides his promise to solve the fire-borrowing issue, Perdue’s biggest applause line came when he said he had intended to invite Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to Tooke’s swearing-in by way of stressing the Forest Service will remain within USDA, where Zinke’s hero, President Theodore Roosevelt, placed it.

Tooke, speaking in his soft Alabama accent in the fountained interior patio of the headquarters on the National Mall, said he plans to bring a commitment to public service with a mission “anchored in science and based on good data” to his job as chief of what he called “an incredibly dedicated workforce.”

And he took a moment to recall attending a memorial service in Southern California earlier this week for firefighter Gary Helming, 47, chief of the Los Padres National Forest, who was killed in a head-on collision Aug. 31 returning from a wildfire near Yosemite. Tooke said Helming “epitomized commitment to public service.”

In a statement of Trump administration policy released Tuesday, the Office of Management and Budget endorsed a legislative proposal working its way through the House investing $3.4 billion in wildfire operations and “fully funding suppression at the 10-year average for both the Forest Service” and the Department of the Interior.

The massive spending bill would provide $935.8 million to Interior and $2.5 billion to the Forest Service for wildland fire management activities, including $182.5 million for fuels management. The Forest Service would have $76 million for state fire assistance and $14.6 million for volunteer fire assistance as the bill is currently written.

Bill Gabbert, managing editor of South Dakota-based WildfireToday.com, said by email Friday that nothing in the spending bill is “earth-shaking” but noted it does include a slight increase for fire suppression and fuels management while the state and volunteer assistance funding would be cut. Hazardous fuels management, he noted, is increasing by only $3 million, or less than 1%.

“Obviously, the fire borrowing train wreck has to be fixed,” he said, noting the 8 million acres burned so far this year is already 48% higher than the 5.5 million acre 10-year average.

Andy Stahl, executive director of Eugene, Ore.-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said his review of the spending bill shows a continuation of the “status quo.”

Perdue said that he’s hopeful he can convince Congress that forest fires, some caused by lightning strikes, are unpredictable, and require “an appropriate budgetary protocol” for planning and prevention, since the cost of fighting fires has exceeded the 10-year average “in about eight of the last 10 years.”