Forest Service official says fighting Lower 48 wildfires is cutting into Alaska forest services

Idaho’s 2016 Pioneer Fire is one of an increasing number of wildfires in national forests. The cost of fighting such blazes is cutting into other U.S. Forest Service programs, including those in Alaska. (Photo courtesy National Forest Service)

Wildfires in the Lower 48 are affecting what the federal government can do in the Tongass and other national forests.

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U.S. Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief Chris French told Southeast Alaska leaders his agency is spending more and more money on firefighting.

“We’ve seen 8,000 positions across the agency that we have essentially shifted from either providing services, forest management (or) recreation management to fire suppression,” French said.

French said firefighting is expected to use up about 60 percent of the Forest Service budget within a few years. That’s three to four times what it was 15 years ago.

French said his agency is also spending more time and money responding to floods, droughts, diseases and insect infestations. He didn’t speak about climate change, but many scientists have said that’s the reason behind such extreme events.

French addressed the Southeast Conference Mid Session Summit in Juneau earlier this month. He also said he’s looking at ways to speed up the agency’s permitting process. He said it has a backlog of more than 6,600 special use permits.

“This includes permitting outfitter guides, folks that are coming to us asking for access to mines or permitting ski areas or even range allotment permits” French said.

French said the agency is looking at excluding more types of projects from extensive environmental assessments. That will include an analysis of prior reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.