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Forest Service temporarily 'insulated' from impact of federal budget sequestration

Mar 10, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Local U.S. Forest Service officials say they won't be negatively effected by federal budget sequestration, but only because of additional funding that came from Congress last year.

"That money ... basically insulated us from the impact of the 5 percent (sequester) cut," district ranger Steve Schacht said Thursday.

"So in this fiscal year we're not going to see an impact ... except in fuels potentially."

Schacht said the Forest Service may hire fewer seasonal employees this season, leaving regular staff to bear more fire prevention responsibilities that include monitoring flammable fuels.

The U.S. Department of Agri-culture estimated the Forest Service will complete as many as 200,000 fewer acres of hazardous fuel treatments.

"If the trend continues we're going to see fewer standing firefighters on each unit," Schacht said.

"But we're not seeing that im-pact this year. And they may make adjustments at different levels in the agency in order to offset that."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $134 million will be cut from the U.S. Forest Service for wildland fire management due to sequestration.

The reduction in funds reportedly would result in an appropriated funding level that is $42 million below the calculated 10 year average for fire suppression costs for fiscal year 2013.

The National Forest Service will see a $78 million cut according to the USDA, leading to a reduction in activities like forest and watershed restoration, grazing and mining. Jobs reportedly will be lost, and campgrounds and other recreational offerings may be shut down.

Budget

Schacht pointed out that federal lawmakers have yet to pass a final budget for this fiscal year.

"So the unknown quotient in the whole equation is, (we're cutting) 5 percent cut of what?" Schacht said. "If they change our budget from what we projected ... it could have a more significant impact. We're not anticipating that, (but) by the end of the month we may be hearing something a little different."

Schacht said Congress has gotten worse and worse about passing budgets on time. This year, he said lawmakers are almost six months behind.

"It's really hard to plan and project what's going to happen," he said. "More and more, they're not passing budgets in advance. They're holding them hostage for some other reason."

Fire conditions

Schacht said his agency received the extra money from Congress last year because funding for wildland fire suppression has declined steadily over the past decade while drought conditions have worsened. It's still a little early to make predictions about the upcoming fire season in Fremont County, but Schacht said snowpack levels are below average currently.

"There's still a chance in the next couple of months to recover, but we're behind," he said. "It's certainly drier than last year."

By this point in 2012, Schacht said, Fremont County had received 110 percent of its average moisture for the year. This week, Schacht said levels are set at 70 percent of average.

"Some of that is skewed," he added, explaining that more recent data is now being used to calculate averages. "That changes the projection. ... But if we don't get significant moisture between now and the end of June we'll probably be drier than we were last year."

Models are projecting continued drought and below-normal precipitation between now and the end of May, he said.

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