USDA Forest Service celebrates historic investments in 2023
Thanks to several key investments this past year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service has worked to address the challenges and growing threats of natural disasters, drought, wildfires and declining forest health conditions exacerbated by climate change across the country.
“2023 was a year of growth, of historic investments and achievements,” said Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Dr. Homer Wilkes. “Through collaboration and partnership, we’ve worked toward addressing the threats of climate change, invested in wildfire risk reduction to protect communities and our natural resources, advanced long-term solutions to support our wildland firefighting workforce, enhanced equity in access to urban and community green spaces, and executed 120 co-stewardship agreements with Tribes. We leveraged investments from all sources to put us in position to increase the pace and scale of our work in 2023 and deliver so much to the American people.”
The Forest Service made several investments in 2023 to make communities, lands and waters healthier, safer, and more resilient to climate change and wildfire. These investments include: increases in the size, scope and impact of the agency’s 10-Year Strategy to Confront the Wildfire Crisis; advancing greater equity in access to agency programs and decision-making processes that impact national forest and grassland management; strengthening relationships and honoring the trust responsibility and sovereign treaty rights of Indian Tribes; and supporting economies and creating jobs in communities nationwide, all while leveraging innovative approaches to agency work.
“None of these accomplishments would be possible without the dedicated work of our employees and partners,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “The work we’re doing across all lands to address the wildfire crisis in the West while at the same time advancing equity and delivering world class science represents major milestones in support of our efforts to fulfill our mission on behalf of the American people.”
Addressing Threats from Wildfire and Climate Change
In fiscal year 2023, the Forest Service took further action to advance the agency’s 10-Year Strategy to Confront the Wildfire Crisis, originally launched in 2022. This science-based strategy provides a vision for what it will take to meaningfully change how people, communities and natural resources experience risk from wildfire.
In January 2023, the USDA announced emergency authorities to accelerate forest health treatments, including $490 million in additional funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to expand project work near fire-prone communities across the West. In total, the Forest Service accomplished over 750,000 acres of treatments within Wildfire Crisis Strategy landscapes, representing 135% of planned targets in FY23. Across the country, the Forest Service completed more hazardous fuels work than any prior year in its history, lowering fire risk on more than 4.3 million acres in FY23.
In supporting this effort, the Forest Service launched the new National Prescribed Fire Resource Mobilization Strategy. The strategy builds on recommendations from the 90-day prescribed fire program review and pause conducted the summer of 2022. These actions strengthen support for employees and partners conducting prescribed fire, recognizing it as a critical tool in confronting the wildfire crisis, on par with fire suppression. As a result of these and other actions from the 90-day program review, the agency accomplished approximately 2 million acres of prescribed fire this year, a record number of prescribed fire acres treated nation-wide.
This past year, the Forest Service announced two historic grant cycles through the Urban and Community Forestry Program (UCF), allocating $250 million of funding directly to state and territory forestry agencies. The agency received 842 applications totaling $6.4 billion in requests.
In September, the Forest Service announced that 385 proposals totaling more than $1 billion were selected to go to several tribes, 50 states, two U.S. territories, and three U.S. affiliated Pacific islands to plant and maintain trees, combat extreme heat and climate change, and improve equitable access to nature. All of the funding will go to disadvantaged communities.
Additionally, the Forest Service launched a new tribal action plan, doubled the size of the Office of Tribal Relations and hired tribal relations staff in the agency’s Office of Communication. In FY23, $100 million was committed to enhance co-stewardship with tribes, quadrupling investments from the previous fiscal year.
The Forest Service also developed its Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Strategic Plan, which aims to improve internal systems, processes, and culture for the agency and its partners for the next five years and beyond.
Economic relief and pay equity for federal wildland firefighters
More than 14,000 Forest Service wildland firefighters and 5,000 Department of the Interior (DOI) wildland firefighters received $381 million in supplemental payments since June 2022.
The agency also co-developed the Biden-Harris Administration’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal with DOI, Office of Personnel Management, and the Office of Management and Budget to authorize and fund permanently increased pay for wildland firefighters to recognize the dangerous work they do. While legislative action will still be required to make this adjustment permanent, this was an important step in the right direction.
The agency also made historic progress in converting a record number of temporary firefighter positions to permanent positions and delivered pay increases to more than 11,300 men and women who protect people, communities, infrastructure and resources across the country.
Innovations and Impacts
The Forest Service scientific community contributed more than 1,100 peer-reviewed publications in FY23 to expand global knowledge on critical topics. This research is freely available on the website Treesearch and since the beginning of fiscal year 2023, millions of visitors came to the agency’s research and development website and downloaded documents more than 325,000 times.
The Forest Service also established a new National Post-Disaster Recovery team that will build on collective experiences to expand beyond the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) and Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) programs, crafting innovative solutions such as shared field learning, best practices, protocols, training and developing policy recommendations.
This team provided support for recovery efforts in four Forest Service regions, including wildfire recovery in Hawaii and hurricane recovery across the southeast. In the past fiscal year, the agency invested $45 million of Burned Area Rehabilitation funds for range, recreation, and transportation infrastructure repair and landscape treatments for reforestation and invasive weed control on fires from the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Treatments include almost 300 miles of road stabilization, 125 miles of trail stabilization, and 5,000 acres of invasive plant treatment.
Entering its fourth year, Great American Outdoors Act investments through the Legacy Restoration Fund continue to impact outdoor recreation and contribute to regional economic growth and rural job creation by improving infrastructure and public land access.
298 trail and 456 recreation site projects are in progress in 41 states and Puerto Rico.
Nearly 96 percent of all contracts are with small businesses. Forty-seven percent are with disadvantaged small businesses.
Currently, 390 active partnership agreements are in place.
Projects completed and underway will address approximately $647 million in deferred maintenance.