Democratic News

"A quick look through the Administration's proposed budget for the Forest Service shows a fairly level budget overall, with not much of an increase from recent appropriated levels. Maybe given the current fiscal situation, a flat budget is about as good as we can expect. "In at least one aspect, however, I think this is a cause for concern. As I read the budget information, it appears that the Administration is proposing about $2.3 billion for wildfire management activities, taking into account both the Forest Service and BLM budget proposals. "Within that amount, about $416 million is proposed for activities to help reduce hazardous fuels, a little more than half of which is proposed for Forest Service activities. This is only a very slight increase from the $413 million that was actually appropriated two years ago in the fiscal year 2002 appropriation bill. "As we all know, drought conditions are continuing throughout much of the western United States. If we have another bad fire season, I don't think that essentially maintaining level funding for wildfire management will be adequate. This past year, more than $1 billion had to be transferred from other accounts to help cover fire fighting costs. Even with the enactment of the Omnibus Appropriations bill, there will not be enough money to fully reimburse those other accounts. In fact, I believe they will remain at least a couple of hundred million dollars short of the amounts originally appropriated. "I am also very concerned that the budget is proposing to zero-out funding for rehabilitation and restoration of burned areas. I believe the Forest Service has previously indicated there is already a backlog of at least $200 million for restoration activities. This is of great concern in New Mexico and in other states that have suffered serious fires, and I hope we will be able to restore an appropriate level of funding for restoration activities in the next appropriation bill. "It also appears that the Forest Service is moving away from prioritizing its fuel reduction efforts from the wildland urban interface -- the areas that pose the greatest fire risk to communities. I'd like to hear further about the agency's priorities with respect to this, but the budget information that we received indicates that the Forest Service is proposing to treat almost 170,000 fewer acres in the wildland urban interface than it is targeting right now. "I am very disappointed with the major cuts the Administration is proposing for Federal land acquisition, almost 70 percent below the amount appropriated last year. I think it's a short-sighted policy, and certainly unfair to landowners within forest boundaries who want to sell their land, and have been waiting for years for available funds. "Finally, I'd like to make a brief comment about the general direction of our forest policy. Some have expressed concern that with each new regulation or legislative proposal, this Administration is incrementally shifting the management focus of National Forests back to favoring commercial timber harvesting as the preferred management goal. "As the public interest in the forest-related amendments to the appropriations bill indicate, the management of our forests and other public lands are of great interest to all Americans. I would like to hear more about the Administration's future policy proposals, and I look forward to continuing to work with Secretary Rey, Chief Bosworth, and the members of this Committee as we try and develop a responsible forest management policy."