A provision in the farm bill (H.R.2642) passed by the House on Wednesday authorized the U.S. Forest Service to “establish a large airtanker and aerial asset lease program”, allowing the agency to “enter into a multiyear lease contract for up to five aircraft that meet the criteria described in the Forest Service document entitled `Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy‘ and dated February 10, 2012, for large airtankers”. That 2012 strategy stated that the next generation of large airtankers would have a 3,000 to 5,000 gallon capacity and would be turbine powered. These are the specifications of the seven next-gen air tankers that received contracts in 2013. The USFS has been contracting for large air tankers for decades. So, we were confused about the purpose of this language in the farm bill, placed there by two Senators from Colorado, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. It seemingly allows for what the USFS does routinely, but does not appropriate any additional funds.
We checked with the U.S. Forest Service to try to understand if there was an intended difference between the routine contracting for air tankers that has been going on for decades and this new “leasing” language. We received the following, uh, explanation from their Washington, DC office:
The language in the Farm Bill clarifies our existing authority to lease up to five airtankers annually. Depending on our budget resources, this authority may be useful. At present, the Forest Service is relying on next generation airtanker contracts and the seven C-130 planes transferred in the Defense Appropriations Bill to modernize the fleet as we retire the legacy airtankers in the coming years.
That certainly clears that up.
We reached out to the offices of Senators Bennet and Udall, and received the following from James D. Owens, Press Secretary for Senator Udall:
The United States Forest Service is allowed to acquire large air tankers in two ways: (1) as surplus from other federal agencies or (2) contracting. The provision that Senator Udall successfully included in the Farm Bill gives the Forest Service a third, more flexible option to acquire air tankers, i.e. leasing.
“Leasing” might involve renting the air tankers without pilots, and possibly without a maintenance agreement. We have a hard time understanding why the USFS would want to become involved in that type of situation. They are going to have a hard enough time arranging for the operation and maintenance of the 15 Sherpas and 7 C-130Hs recently acquired from the military and the Coast Guard — aircraft which they will own.
The bill is now in the Senate. The White House says President Barack Obama will sign it if it reaches his desk.