The Senate today is debating H.R. 1904, the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act.” Senator Bingaman plans to strengthen, clarify and improve this newly-negotiated legislation with a number of amendments, including: -- An amendment that addresses 1) the serious, perennial problems that result from the Forest Service’s bad habit of cannibalizing (“borrowing”) funds designated for forest-thinning and other preventative actions in order to pay fire-fighting costs, and 2) the need for funding to assist local communities to conduct brush removal and tree-thinning on non-Federal lands. 1) Every year, forest health projects that have been approved and are ready to go are cancelled when their appropriated funds are suddenly diverted because the fire-fighting account is spent. A bipartisan group of senators has strongly opposed this practice for some time (see attached letter to OMB from 2002), but it continues. Sen. Bingaman’s amendment solves this problem by allowing the Forest Service to borrow directly from the Treasury when its fire-fighting funds are depleted, which protects the ongoing forest-thinning projects that will reduce the likelihood of future catastrophic fires. 2) For local communities facing fire dangers on non-Federal land adjacent to them, Sen. Bingaman’s amendment makes $100 million per year available for fiscal years 2004-2008 to help communities reduce the fire danger and restore burned lands on non-Federal land, including state lands, county lands and tribal lands. (Unlike the compromise bill, this amendment makes real money available, not just an authorization for funding.) -- Another amendment would require that “slash” be treated. Many fuels reduction projects require two or more sequential treatments over several years on the same parcel of land, such as timber harvest followed by piling and burning slash. Completing follow-up slash treatments in a timely manner is important because slash provides fuels for wildfires and habitat for beetles and insects. A recent GAO analysis found that, for example, in New Mexico, the Forest Service and BLM completed only 19 of 39 follow-up slash treatments in a timely manner. In addition, GAO found that the agencies’ reported figures for acres treated are misleading because they are double-counting acres where the same acreage is treated in multi-year phases. This amendment ensures accurate accounting. -- A third Bingaman amendment seeks to clarify that the expedited procedures in the bill do not apply to National Monuments. Although the compromise text explicitly excludes wilderness areas and wilderness study areas, it appears to allow fuels treatment under expedited procedures in many National Monuments and other nationally significant areas.
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