Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has an answer when he hears state leaders call on the U.S. Forest Service to do more logging and other forest treatments to reduce the size of wildfires.
“We are doing more and we’re doing it for less money,” Tidwell said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman on Thursday.
The Forest Service has reduced its nonfirefighting staff by 39 percent since 2000. But its Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program alone has treated 1.45 million acres over the past five years and harvested 1.2 billion board feet of timber from national forests.
The program funnels money to projects that were developed with local residents, the timber industry, conservation groups, sportsmen and Indian tribes. These groups, such as the Clearwater Basin Collaborative and the Payette Forest Coalition, make the projects easier to complete because they have broad community support, Tidwell said.
“Without this we wouldn’t have been able to take on the scale of these projects,” he said.
He’s asking Congress for $20 million more annually so he can expand beyond the 23 existing projects to other forests and groups seeking to work together. Eventually Tidwell said he envisions the collaborative model approved by Congress in 2009 used to manage the Forest Service’s entire 193 million acres of forests and grasslands. That includes about 20 million acres in Idaho.
“We’ve built enough trust so we can move forward and make this the norm,” Tidwell said.
In Idaho, the Weiser-Little Salmon project has resulted in four timber contracts since 2012, which has allowed the Evergreen lumber mill near New Meadows to add a second shift and create 15 new jobs.
One contract that’s halfway completed generated 3.4 million board feet of timber, enough to build 5,000 homes. The $690,000 that Evergreen paid for the timber goes back into restoration, road closings and wildlife habitat improvement.
The Selway-Middle Fork forest restoration project in the Clearwater Basin received $16 million, which has been augmented by $13 million in matching funds. It is generating $14 million in labor income, reducing fire risk on 16,000 acres, treating weeds on 16,800 acres more and improving 16,000 acres of wildlife habitat.
“Forest restoration efforts are now demonstrating a track record of creating jobs, reducing the threat of wildfires and improving forest health on our public lands,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, who helped advance the Clearwater Basin Collaborative. “Collaborative efforts like these get us back to work in our forests and are one step, among others, we need to take to restore the economies of our rural counties.”
That doesn’t mean the states can’t help. A “good neighbor” policy expanded by Congress in the last farm bill allows states to work with the Forest Service to get projects done. Oregon is paying millions to crews who mark trees for sales. Montana is paying for the environmental reviews on some sales to get them moving. In Washington’s Colville National Forest, a large landscape restoration project is going out to bid, with the buyer paying for the environmental review in exchange for the wood products from the project.
The Idaho Legislature approved a Senate resolution calling for Idaho’s congressional delegation to help increase funding and develop agreements whereby the state could carry out restoration efforts on some federal lands.
Tidwell, who attended Capital High School, was in Boise to address a conference on wildland fire safety. Safety will be especially important this year, with warm temperatures across the West melting the snowpack early.
Tidwell expects another long fire season, and that’s why he hopes Congress approves a bill that will stop him from having to take money from other programs to fight fires. That will improve the agency’s efficiency, he said. “It’s past time for us to treat these large fires as a national disaster,” Tidwell said.
He hears critics saying he and other decision-makers should return to the levels of timber harvests that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. The Forest Service needs to get “more work done,” Tidwell said, but can’t go back to those levels.
“I think we’re doing a better job than we ever did,” he said.