"Healthy Forests" bait and switch?

Larry Harrell lhfotoware at hotmail.com
Wed Mar 3 18:52:32 EST 2004

March 3, 2004  Environment & Energy Daily

Wyden blasts Bush admin for underfunding hazardous fuels reduction 

by Dan Berman

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an instrumental figure in passing "Healthy
Forests" legislation last fall, lashed out at the Bush administration
yesterday for its failure to meet Congress' expectation of $760
million in new money for hazardous fuels reduction.

At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the
Forest Service's FY '05 budget request, a visibly agitated Wyden said
he would not have supported the Healthy Forests Restoration Act last
year without the $760 million authorization. He pledged to do his best
to reinstate some of the funding.

"You are taking the health out of the Healthy Forests program," Wyden
said to administration witnesses present at the hearing. "At a
minimum, you are hundreds of millions of dollars short of what the
Congress authorized."

The White House requested $80 million to $100 million in new money for
the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management as part of a total
$760.4 million under the Healthy Forests rubric. That includes $476
million for hazardous fuels reduction by both agencies. But those
figures are far short of the $760 million that Congress authorized for
hazardous fuels reduction on 20 million acres of national forest at
extreme risk for catastrophic wildfires.

"We asked for $760 million in new money for these various kinds of
initiatives" in the bill, Wyden said. "This is a breach of what the
Congress intended on a bipartisan basis in terms of getting this work

In addition to authorizing the $760 million, the Healthy Forests act
includes limits on administrative appeals, legal challenges and
environmental review of thinning projects meant to reduce the threat
of wildfires, something supporters said is necessary to block actions
by environmental groups that delay needed action in the field.

Those new tools, along with expanded use of stewardship contracting
and categorical exclusions, will allow the Forest Service to make the
most of its funding request, even without $760 million in new money,
said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

For the Forest Service's Healthy Forests budget, the administration is
requesting $449 million, including $266 million for hazardous fuels
reduction, $58 million for vegetation and watershed treatment, and $2
million for stewardship contracting studies. Programs such as
rangeland management that remove small trees and brush have a
corollary benefit of reducing the risk for wildfires, the agency says.

But although the administration hopes to treat 4 million acres of
federal land through controlled burns, logging, rangeland improvements
and other measures, Wyden said the funding request sabotages those
efforts. "It is a fantasy to say we are going to get anything close to
the amount of work Congress foresaw in this bipartisan legislation,"
Wyden said. "I think there is going to be enormous frustration out in
rural America, which is expecting these new funds to get important
work done, and you all basically did a bait and switch."

The $760 million authorization was a major issue during the debate
over the Healthy Forests bill in the Senate and in conference last
fall. The House version of the bill contained no funding clause, but
Senate conferees insisted on including the authorization in the final

"I would not have been on the floor for the entire time this debate
came up unless there was a change to get a bipartisan amendment to
ensure there would be new dollars for this hazardous fuels reduction
program," Wyden said.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who worked behind-the-scenes with
lawmakers last fall, noted the bill leaves funding levels up to the
discretionary appropriations process and does not specify the $760
million must be new money.

Furthermore, while President Bush strongly supported the bill, based
on his "Healthy Forests Initiative," a statement of administration
policy (SAP) issued during the Senate debate questioned the need for
the $760 million authorization. "The administration is concerned that
the authorization level in the Senate bill is well above [recent
funding levels] and above the increased funding levels the
administration requested and continues to support for FY 2004," the
Oct. 29, 2003, SAP states.

Wyden disagreed with Rey's assessment, saying, "Everybody in the
United States Senate thought this was new money that was going to go
towards these efforts."

Firefighting issues 

Meanwhile, ranking member Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) criticized the Forest
Service's $685 million request for wildfire suppression, saying it is
millions of dollars short of the actual figure the agency has spent
fighting fires in recent years.

"I don't think this passes the straight-face test given that all
indications are that we will have another bad fire season in the
West," Bingaman said.

The Forest Service says its request is about $88 million more than it
budgeted for FY '04. However, the FY '04 budget contains a $300
million repayment for firefighting costs in previous years. The
funding request is determined by using the average of costs over the
past 10 years, but dramatic wildfire seasons of recent years have
forced the Forest Service to far exceed its budget. To make up the
shortfall, the Forest Service borrows from other programs, but the
solution often comes to the detriment of other essential programs
because the money usually is not restored.

"Each year we hear testimony about how this administration's request
will meet the fire suppression needs and help avoid the chaos of
transfers, and each year we end up scrambling for emergency
appropriations to cover growing firefighting costs and to repay
important accounts that have been raided in the meantime," Bingaman
said. "These transfers cause more than chaos, they cause us to delay
and dismantle numerous projects in all of our states."

For the Forest Service, the practice has delayed forest thinning and
rehabilitation programs designed to prevent future wildfires. In 2002,
reallocation of funds for fighting wildfires accounted for 30 percent
of all delays in fire prevention projects, the General Accounting
Office said in a September 2003 report. As a result, the Forest
Service and the Interior Department only treated 56 percent of the 4
million acres they planned to treat last year.

Rey maintained the administration is willing to work with Bingaman on
a proposal to create a government-wide contingency account the Forest
Service and other agencies could use in order to avoid drawing from
other agency accounts in the future.

Comment from poster: This is MESSED UP! This will undo any trust in
the Bush Administration's (and Congress') forestry program. We may be
looking at a total collapse of emergency actions approved by Congress
in a bipartisan effort. Judges might just shoot down a great many
projects because of a lack of funding for non-timber-producing
activities (controlled burning, removal of unmerchantable fuels, etc)
embedded within timber projects. These activities were to be the heart
and soul of "Healthy Forests". Judges also will not stand for
additional cutting of merchantable trees, understocking forests of
medium-sized trees (which need to be our future old growth). Old
growth must not be cut, as well.  Americans should be outraged and
urging Congress to fully fund the program while watching where EVERY
PENNY goes. If not, we're looking at continued disasters that may very
well burn up Bush's re-election bid, too.

Larry,   still for restoring forests back to old growth

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