MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service expects to shoulder $212 million in sequestration cuts this year, but no one can say how that might play out at the local level.
Forest Service Region 1 spokeswoman Elizabeth Sloan said Monday all requests for information were being referred to the Washington, D.C., press office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
An email from that office provided a Feb. 5 letter from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to the Senate Appropriations Committee outlining the agency’s general plans.
“The information in the letter is what we have available at this time,” department spokeswoman Stephanie Chan wrote in the email. “Also, at this time we do not have USDA state-by-state impacts, but the White House put out state-by-state numbers.”
The White House statement also had no Forest Service examples. Vilsack’s letter broke the Forest Service’s cuts into two categories: wildland fire management and the National Forest System. He proposed cutting $134 million from wildland fire.
That included recovering $20 million in “fire transfer funds” repaid to other Forest Service budget areas in 2012. Montana State Forester Bob Harrington said the Forest Service often has to borrow money from its non-fire operations to pay for firefighting costs, which it repays after the fire season through a special appropriation.
Those dollars fund recreation, research, forest management and other agency activities that were put on hold while fire bills got paid.
The statement said the Forest Service would not perform up to 200,000 acres of hazardous fuel reduction treatments, which remove fire-prone timber from around homes, campgrounds, roads and other high-risk areas.
“We have not received any formal notice of anything related to sequestration,” Harrington said on Monday. “We’re expecting there’s going to be some impacts, but we don’t know what they are.”
Wildland fire accounts could also save money “by reducing the use of Exclusive Use aviation contracts, 115 engines and 10 hotshot crews,” Vilsack wrote. But calls to fire retardant bomber service Neptune Aviation and other fire aviation sources could not confirm any official changes have been proposed in those contracts for 2013.
“We haven’t gotten any indication from the agency if there’s any impact from sequestration,” Neptune President Dan Snyder said Monday. “As far as we know, we’re still on track for our next-gen contracts. We are currently operating under last year’s contract as an extension.”
The “next-gen” contracts refer to Forest Service plans to spend close to $500 million over the next 10 years on modern, jet-powered retardant bombers. Neptune already has invested in three new BAe-146 jets to augment its fleet of nine Korean War-era P2-V propeller-powered planes.
Additional information from the Department of Agriculture calculated the sequestration “could result in 500 fewer firefighters and 50 to 70 fewer available engines, and will impact aviation assets.”
On the forest management side, Vilsack’s letter predicted the closure of up to 670 campgrounds and other recreation sites and the “reduction” of 35 Forest Service law enforcement officers. It didn’t explain if those reductions meant people would be fired, furloughed or not hired.
Timber harvests would be cut about 15 percent in 2013, from 2.8 billion board feet to 2.379 billion. The agency also would “restore 390 fewer stream miles, 2,700 acres of lake habitat and improve 260,000 fewer acres of wildlife habitat.”
That sounds like the kind of work performed by Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Projects such as Montana’s Southwest Crown Collaborative. But Pyramid Mountain Lumber resource manager Gordy Sanders said he’d not heard of any change in the many CFLRP projects the Seeley Lake mill was involved in.
“We look forward to the Forest Service performing in developing projects, doing the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) work and doing the project just like always,” Sanders said. “We fully expect them to produce. They’re incredibly important piece of the overall supply for all these family-owned mills.”
Vilsack’s letter gave no indication of what this might do to Forest Service or other Agriculture Department workers.
By comparison, WildfireToday.com blogger Bill Gabbert posted a copy of a Feb. 22 letter from Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to Department of Interior employees stating “thousands of permanent employees will be furloughed … for periods of time up to 22 work days.”
The letter also stated “Many of our seasonal employees will be furloughed, have delayed starts, or face shortened employment periods. In some cases, we will not have the financial resources to hire seasonal employees at all.”
Salazar’s letter also warned of deep cuts to the department’s youth hiring this year. Montana Conservation Corps Director Jono McKinny said he was still waiting for details at a crucial time of the year.
“We have hired our crew leaders for the year, and we’re training them now,” McKinny said. “We will have 250 young people serving in AmeriCorps this summer, and another 240 serving in our summer youth programs. This is when we start negotiating projects, in March and April. If those projects aren’t there, we’re going to need to scale back dramatically. Those projects are two-thirds of our budget.”