MOSCOW — U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the agency she leads is striving to do everything it can to create healthier forests and reduce catastrophic wildfires.

“That means active management, that is using every tool in the tool kit to create more health and resilience,” she said. “That is thinning, that is harvesting, that is active management of fire including prescribed fire.”

Christiansen, who was named chief in October after serving as interim chief for several months, was in Moscow on Thursday to participate in the groundbreaking of the University of Idaho’s new basketball arena — a structure to be built with wood products.

In a brief interview with reporters, she championed the Shared Stewardship program announced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last August. The program seeks high-level planning and collaboration between the Forest Service, states and private land owners to work to implement harvest and burning projects across vast landscapes as an important new tool to reduce future fires, while also improving wildlife habitat and providing forest products for sawmills.

Idaho was the first state to sign on to the program. State and federal officials, along with other collaborators, are studying potential “priority landscape areas” where the work will occur. Dennis Becker, dean of the U of I College of Natural Resources who is participating in the program, said Idaho will soon identify two such areas. Each will be approximately 2 million acres in size, with one in northern Idaho and one in the southern half of the state.

“It’s all about fire-risk transmission,” Becker said. “That is the fundamental part of this: How do we reduce the risk of fire?”

Christiansen said the agency has long been working to improve forest conditions, but there is a need to do so on a much larger scale and to focus the work in places it will make the biggest difference.

“We are working not only to treat more acres but to treat the right kind of acres,” Christiansen said.

“We’ve got to think bigger on how we treat and what we treat so we can reduce the risk to the most important values that are named in the sate of Idaho.”

Last week, Crystal Kolden, an associate professor at the school’s College of Natural Resources in Moscow, published a paper that said the Forest Service and other federal land managers largely have not increased the use of prescribed fire to reduce wildfire threats, even though their own strategies call for it. Christiansen pushed back slightly on the conclusion of the work, but acknowledged there is more room to use prescribed fire.

She said the agency, along with the public, have to be more willing to accept and share short-term risks of prescribed fires to effectively use it as a tool to curb massive wildfires. She identified the risks of prescribed fires as the possibility that some could escape control and the smoke that can inundate nearby communities.

“We have a long ways to go to keep accelerating that use because fire in many of these landscapes is the most important land-management tool that we have, so we are appreciative of the report and we are looking at our skill set and working on barriers that prevent us from getting more done in the future.”

Even within the agency, Christiansen there is work to be done so line officers have the confidence to use prescribed fire and don’t feel like they will be vulnerable if the burns escape.

“We are not going to change the way we do business if we don’t innovate, and to innovate we are going to have to take some risks. So we are trying to build more risk tolerance.”

Legislation known as the fire funding fix that was included in the 2018 Omnibus Spending Package will relieve some of the financial pressure that fighting fires brings to the agency. In 1995, fire management accounted for about 15 percent of the budget, Christiansen said. Last year it ate more than 50 percent of the budget. In 10 out of the last 15 years, the agency has had to transfer money from other programs, such as recreation and trail maintenance, to cover the expenses of fighting fire.

Starting next year that will change. When the agency exhausts its fire fighting budget, it will be able to tap into disaster relief funds, instead of borrowing from other programs or relying on emergency appropriations. Christiansen said the new tool will help the agency better implement its recreation and trail-maintenance programs.

This article first published in the Lewiston Tribune.

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