‘Sequester' word of the day at House Ag Subcommittee hearing

By Aarian Marshall

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WASHINGTON, March 14, 2013 - Though yesterday's hearing at the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry was meant to focus on the local economies surrounding the National Forest Service (NFS), “sequester” became the word of the day as lawmakers drilled U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on the cuts' dramatic effects on his agency.

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Tidwell's submitted testimony did not mention the sequester once, and yet his hour -long question and answer session with the subcommittee was dominated by the budget cutting strategy, implemented March 1 when the Congress failed to complete a deal that would have averted it.

Tidwell said the sequester meant a five percent across-the-board cut in the Forest Service's budget, but assured lawmakers that the service will “do everything we can to minimize (them).”

But there will be cuts, Tidwell warned lawmakers. He confirmed Secretary Vilsack's estimate that the service would be forced to close 670 of its 19,000 sites, despite fears from Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala, that the Obama Administration had told its cabinet members “to maximize the pain from sequestration” in public to score political points.

Tidwell emphasized, however, that his agency would “work with local communities” to determine which facilities are mostly “lightly used” and whether local volunteers would be willing to handle maintenance to keep more sites open.

But Tidwell's testimony did emphasize the precarious situation of the Forest Service even before the March 1 sequester hit. “It is estimated that there are between 62 and 85 million (high and very high fire risk) acres of National Forest System lands in need of restoration,” he wrote. And he warned, “More and bigger fires will become the norm as climate continues to change.”

Other hearing participants spoke to the “symbiotic” relationship between rural communities the surrounding Federal Forest lands.
It is a relationship, testimony emphasized, that is deeply in danger. Jim Schuessler, executive director at the Forest County Economic Development Partnership in Crandon, Wis., wrote that insufficient management of his county's Federal Forests had lead to an appreciable downturn in its local economy.

An ill-kept National Forest, he noted, lead to the loss of 4,000 local jobs, which in turn lead to insufficient funding for local schools.

“Lose your school, lose your town,” he prophesized. “The grocery store and other small family owned business close. Health care options diminish.”

The result, Schuessler said, was a “crisis in our National Forests.” He recommended Congress authorize a “crisis manager” to deal with a poorly-managed Forest Service that has left regional economies “needlessly fractured.”

But both Tidwell and the following panel of rural economy testified that there was hope for the National Forest Service, even amidst this month's congressional budget battles.

Tidwell spoke of NFS's current harvesting efforts, which have the double benefit of assisting management strategies while tapping into a rebounding timber market.

And more investment in NFS, Schuessler advised, could only have positive effects. “Every dollar invested in (local economic development) will return three dollars to the United States Treasury,” he said.


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