Massive federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, which could take effect Friday if Congress doesn’t act to stop them, would include a cut of about $2 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That would filter down to the U.S. Forest Service in the form of a $134 million cut to the Wildland Fire Management Program and a $78 million cut to the National Forest System, according to a letter dated Feb. 5 from the USDA to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Forest Service would complete as many as 200,000 fewer acres of burns to protect against wildfires, the letter states. In addition it could mean 670 public recreation sites would be closed and the loss of 35 of 742 law enforcement officers patrolling the forests, the letter states.
“The agency would restore 390 fewer stream miles, 2,700 fewer acres of lake habitat and improve 260,000 fewer acres of wildlife habitat,” the letter states.
Management of the Talladega National Forest is already a challenge to accomplish with the money available before the cuts. Jonathan Stober, district wildlife biologist at the Talladega National Forest’s Shoal Creek District, based in Heflin, said the district has 235,100 acres to manage. The Forest Service is able to successfully manage about 40 percent of those acres full-time, he said, and works to manage alternating halves of the remaining 60 percent every other year. It’s an issue of manpower, Stober said.
“The scale of resources dedicated to it in no way meets the need,” Stober said.
In the Talladega National Forest, habitat restoration for both the longleaf pine and the red cockaded woodpecker have relied on regular controlled burns.
While many hardwood trees’ growth is suppressed by fires, longleaf pines, once predominant throughout the South, thrive in places where there are periodic forest fires, according to Stober.
Before the forest was acquired by the government in the 1930s, the area experienced both natural and manmade fires. The fires burned away material on the forest floor and enhanced the natural resources, Stober said. It also limited the growth of hardwood trees, making it easier for longleaf pines to grow.
The Forest Service’s management philosophy through the 1960s emphasized fire suppression, Stober said. That and timber harvesting helped lead to the decline of the longleaf. Forest managers in recent years have used intentionally set fires to help bring the longleafs, he said.
The red cockaded woodpecker, which was once also far more common, relies on the longleaf for its habitat, Stober said. The woodpeckers build cavities into mature longleafs and can live there for a decade or more, Stober said.
The birds used to range across 60 million to 90 million acres of the Southeast; now they have just 2 million to 3 million acres of habitat left, Stober said. In the Talladega National Forest in 2012 there were about 30 clusters of one to four woodpeckers each. Restoring more of the birds’ habitat involves restoring the numbers of longleaf pines, which relies in part on controlled burns.
“The use of fire is critical,” Stober said.
The Shoal Creek District is on track to burn approximately 30,000 acres this year; but that is about half of what it should be burning in a year, Stober said.
In addition, Forest Service workers will be allowing selected timber harvests and replanting with longleaf pines.
Mark Kolinski of Wild South, a forest stewardship organization, said the looming budget cuts will further stress an already-overburdened national forest system.
"They've been pinched already,” Kolinski said. "If they start cutting 5 percent across the board, it's only going to get worse."
Other Forest Service functions besides the burn program have been affected by shrinking federal funding, Kolinski said. No new trails policy has been developed for Alabama's national forests for several years, he said, and jobs within the Forest Service have gone unfilled. Bankhead National Forest hasn't had a full-time ranger overseeing its 25,000 acres for at least seven or eight years, Kolinski said. His organization recruits volunteers to help pick up the slack where the forest service can't reach. The cuts will greatly increase the need for volunteers, he said.
"We are so lucky to have them," Kolinski said of the state's national forests. "But there are threats to them ... and without management they'll lose their wilderness character."
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.