Leadership Corner

A fire budget for the 21st century

March 30th, 2018 at 11:15AM

A picture of Vicki Christiansen in Forest Service uniform.
Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, USDA Forest Service.

Everywhere I go in the Forest Service, I see a deep appreciation for the higher purpose that unites us all. I see a willingness to come to grips with our workforce issues by remembering who we really are as an agency—that we really stand for so much more, for common decency and respect for the people we serve—and for each other.

Everywhere I go, I see courageous and innovative thinkers whose leadership comes not from their positions but from within, inspired by our higher purpose as an organization. I see a widespread recognition that our purpose as an agency rests on the foundation of a safe and rewarding work environment where everyone is treated with dignity, fairness and respect—where everyone is free from all forms of harassment, assault, bullying and retaliation. I see willingness at every level of our organization to make this a reality for all.

I am also heartened by recent developments that will help us on our way. One such development is an announcement by Secretary Perdue on March 22 to proceed with filling permanent positions across the Forest Service. In addition, Congress passed and the President signed an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 that increased our total appropriation by about $338 million. Most budget line items showed increases or held steady, and the Washington Office will absorb the cuts for any that did not. The new allocations will let us continue to deliver a full range of values and benefits to the American people.

In addition, the omnibus bill authorizes the fire funding fix that we requested, with strong support from Secretary Perdue. Under the bill, USDA and the Department of the Interior will have a new joint budget authority of $2.25 billion to cover firefighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. The new authority will begin in fiscal year 2020 and increase by $100 million per year through fiscal year 2027.

To be sure, the fire funding fix will not kick in right away. For the 2018–2019 fire years, we will continue to rely on regular appropriations based on the 10-year rolling average of firefighting costs. However, the omnibus bill contains $500 million in emergency suppression funds for 2018, in addition to our regular appropriation of $1.057 billion for suppression.

When the fire funding fix does kick in, the Forest Service—and the American people—will benefit in two key ways. First, it will end the need for us to borrow from non-fire programs to cover firefighting costs when regular appropriations run out during severe fire years. Since 2000, fire borrowing has disrupted other critical resource management work in most years. Second, the fire funding fix will stop the erosion of our non-fire programs. As our suppression costs have continued to rise, they have eaten up a growing proportion of the overall Forest Service budget. The fire funding fix will help us finally restore balance to our program delivery on behalf of the people we serve.

Moreover, the omnibus bill also resolves other issues facing the Forest Service and our partners. For example, it expands our ability to expedite fuels and forest health treatments through the use of categorical exclusions in project areas up to 3,000 acres in size and it includes a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, providing critically needed funding for rural communities.

So I am very heartened by recent developments. Passage of the omnibus bill and the release of new hires mean a great deal to all of us at the Forest Service. They are a measure of the trust that Congress and the administration place in every one of us. Through your hard work, you have earned the confidence of our elected officials that we will continue to meet the needs of the people we serve.

I am grateful to you for your accomplishments and for your leadership in creating a work environment we can all be proud of, where everyone is valued for what they do and treated with the dignity and respect we all deserve. Let’s build on this momentum. Our elected representatives, partners, stakeholders and the American people all support us. It is our time to step up to the challenge—to achieve even more on the ground—and we can succeed by continuing to look for more efficient ways to get our work done. By being good neighbors and sharing stewardship, we can deliver all the outcomes that Americans want and expect on their forests and grasslands, for the benefit of generations to come.