Forestry Commission fears cutbacks, job losses

MONTGOMERY, AL - The Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) is facing a budget shortfall of more than $5 million for Fiscal Year 2011 and it says it must now review its entire structure.

State Forester Linda Casey said that based on current budget estimates, the AFC will be forced to reduce staffing by nearly one-third by the start of the fiscal year beginning October 1. The reduction would affect all services provided by the agency, including wildfire protection.

Casey stated there are three significant factors contributing to the agency's current financial crisis. "In addition to a loss of $3 million in federal funds, there is also a major loss of revenue (another $2 million) from severance taxes driven by the reduced demand for production in the forest products industry, as well as reduced state general fund appropriations."

Past budget reductions and streamlining of operations force the Alabama Forestry Commission to reduce its staff from 529 employees in 1991 to the current 309. Casey says any further reduction could be devastating to the citizens of the state of Alabama.

"We don't want to alarm people;" Casey explained, "however, a reduced number of firefighters will result in increased size and severity of wildfires, making suppression more difficult, as well as magnifying safety and fatigue issues for AFC firefighters. As fewer firefighters are required to cover a larger territory, response time will increase. This decrease in protection may particularly affect the homes and personal property of citizens living in rural areas, as well as the Wildland Urban Interface . . . the area where communities meet the forestland."

"In recent years we have been fortunate enough not to suffer devastating wildfires. But you don't have to look very far to see the potential effects a dry summer could have. Take for instance, the 2007 Waycross-Okefenokee Fire in Georgia and Florida," Casey remarked. "It burned over half a million acres, with property losses estimated to be $65 million in timber and $31 million in replanting cost. It took 3,300 firefighters from 44 states to contain the fires at an estimated cost of $44.1 million. In April 2009, South Carolina firefighters battled a 19,130-acre fire that destroyed 76 homes and damaged 97 others in the Myrtle Beach area."

Another noticeable facet of affected wildfire protection will be reduced support and assistance to volunteer fire departments (VFDs), such as less training in wildland firefighting tactics and safety provided to the VFDs by the AFC. It will result in reduced distribution of federal excess property equipment to VFDs as well.

Casey said the Forestry Commission's budget shortfall is anticipated to affect the agency's ability to provide technical assistance and forest management services to the state's forest landowners. "There is potential for increased fire hazard and risk of wildfires due to the reduction in prescribed burn acreage and establishment of fire lane construction for small, non-industrial landowners. It may also result in a reduction of our ability to investigate timber theft and arson cases, as well as water quality issues related to timber harvesting."

State Forester Casey says she's met with agency employees to address questions and concerns that accompany the impending layoffs.

Casey reiterated, "Although we will prioritize the services we provide to landowners, our primary focus will be wildfire protection and the safety of our firefighters."

During the next several weeks the Forestry Commission will be developing recommendations for landowners and homeowners to help reduce their risk of loss from wildfire.

INFORMATION SOURCE: Alabama Forestry Commission