Sen. Feinstein implores federal officials to aid in California’s tree mortality crisis

By on September 13, 2016
Dianne Feinstein

Senator Feinstein has reached out to Thomas J. Vilsack, secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to make additional funds available to assist with California’s tree mortality crisis. California has an estimated 66 million dead trees in the state, due to five years of historic drought, and only $32 million, or six percent, of the needed $562 million to cut them all down. The 19 projects have already received all necessary environmental clearances, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In a letter to Vilsack, Feinstein refers to the California Governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force (CGTMTF), which includes federal, state, local, and private interests, which has identified 19 shovel-ready tree removal projects on federal lands that are simply awaiting the necessary federal funding. The projects are located on 38,000 acres of Tier 1 High Hazard Zones in the Stanislaus, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forests that present the most severe threats to human life.

In a press release Feinstein released late last week she wrote that, “After five years of historic drought, which has led to the death of an estimated 66 million trees in California alone, my state and its people face a heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come. California has already weathered several devastating wildfires this year, despite the fact that our traditional fire season has not yet even begun. Addressing the unprecedented tree mortality crisis in California is an urgent public safety issue that must be met with the most aggressive action possible.”

Feinstein acknowledges that though the Forest Service budget faces significant pressure from the current rules governing how Congress appropriates money for wildfire suppression, she has been active in lobbying to get a budget fix for California’s dead tree removal passed. She has co-sponsored the stand-alone legislation introduced by Senators Ron Wyden and Mike Crapo and joined with Senator Murkowski to include the budget fix in the Fiscal Year 2017 Senate Interior Appropriations bill. She has written to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy urging him to move the budget fix through the House and she has written letters urging the inclusion of the budget fix in the Energy bill conference report as well as in forestry reform legislation being drafted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But, in her communication with Vilsack, Feinstein points out that Congress specifically appropriated an extra $600 million for wildfire suppression above the 10-year average in last year’s Omnibus and $823 million more than the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget requested for wildfire suppression. Therefore, there should be no need for fire borrowing this year or for holding b

Feinstein indicated that the 19 projects are the top priority for the State-Federal Tree Mortality Task Force, and specifically asked Vilsack to reprogram $38 million in previously-appropriated funds in order to execute the projects as quickly as possible.

In communicating with Donovan, Feinstein focused on the development of the next administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 Budget asking that Donovan to direct the Forest Service to begin developing a specific and substantial funding request to address the tree mortality crisis facing California. As she did in her letter to Vilsack, Feinstein shared with Donovan the heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come in the Golden State. California has already weathered several devastating wildfires this year, despite the fact that the traditional fire season has not yet even begun. Addressing the unprecedented tree mortality crisis in California is an urgent public safety issue and a plea that it must be met with the most aggressive action possible.

Although California’s traditional fall fire season has yet to begin, the state has thus far faced 5,354 fires this year that have burned a total of 496,126 acres, resulted in seven fatalities and destroyed more than 1,270 homes and other structures. The state and federal governments have brought more than 12,000 firefighters and 92 aircraft to bear in order to combat these deadly blazes. Firefighters are reporting unpredictable and unprecedented fire behavior due to five years of extreme drought and the resulting buildup of hazardous fuels as seen in the Soberanes Fire in Monterey County when the fire burned straight through the fire retardant that was supposed to halt its advance.