USDA official: Fire science conference limits based on budget, not topic | Local

Department of Agriculture officials say a decision to limit the number of federal scientists attending a major fire conference was an exercise in good management, not information control.

“What it really comes down to is the agency managers at the research-station level are using critical thinking skills about who are the best people to send to these conferences,” USDA spokesman Mike Illenberg said. “We’re not just sending employees to random conferences. We’re looking across the board where they can get their best bang for the buck.”

The issue arose when members of the Association for Fire Ecology protested the reduction by nearly two-thirds of the number of federal fire experts attending the seventh International Fire Ecology and Management Congress in Orlando, Florida, later this month.

About 20 fire researchers from the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula were planning to present or participate at the conference, but only six were approved to travel.

Association for Fire Ecology President and University of Idaho professor Leda Kobziar wrote Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue that more than 100 USDA and DOI scientists and managers weren’t approved for attending the conference. The sixth annual conference in 2015 gathered 578 fire experts, including 180 federal employees. Only 50 federal fire experts are expected to attend the 2017 conference.

“As taxpayers, our members share the goal of avoiding wasteful government spending, but restricting fire managers and scientists from meeting at conferences is a case of being penny-wise, pound-foolish,” Kobziar wrote. “We believe that the opportunity for scientists and managers to meet face-to-face to address current problems is a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars that holds one of the best hopes of developing solutions for reducing rising wildfire losses.”

Illenberg said the Forest Service allocated $110,000 for the 2017 conference, which was expected to be enough to cover about 50 participants. The agency budgeted $160,000 for 76 employees in 2015. Those figures don’t include participation by agencies in the Department of the Interior, such as the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service or Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“USDA Forest Service leadership in Washington did not consider the…

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