Tags: Wildfires | May | Help | Conservation | Efforts | Official | Says

Wildfires May Help Conservation Efforts, Official Says

Sunday, 19 November 2000 12:00 AM

The fallout from the record wildfire season, he said, has produced both increased federal funding for forestry agencies neglected in past budget battles and heightened public awareness about land management techniques.

Speaking before a Society of American Foresters conference in Washington, Dombeck sought to put a positive spin on what has been the worst wildfire season in decades. He credited the fires for a spending boost this year of $1.78 billion for federal programs designed to minimize the threat of wildfires.

The emergency spending blitz is also likely to translate into more dollars in the future for forestry agencies, he said, especially as lawmakers on Capitol Hill push for more aggressive management of forests in the form of prescribed burns and selective timber thinning.

Further, all the attention from the press given to the Western fires has served to educate the public about the need for aggressive federal land management policy, Dombeck said. This means, he added, that Congress will continue to throw dollars at forest fuels management and environmental rehabilitation programs run by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

"This season produced the best environmental conservation education effort ever, simply because people are beginning to understand land management now," he said. "This means the responsibilities of the Forest Service will continue to increase."

The $1.78 billion boost, as written under the Interior Department appropriations bill for fiscal year 2001, includes $257 million for fuels reduction, $130 million for burned area restoration, $88 million for community education programs and $770 million to restock fire suppression accounts emptied this year.

Before the wildfire season, the Clinton administration had proposed keeping funding for the Forest Service and BLM relatively flat for the upcoming fiscal year.

The president signed the Interior spending bill Oct. 12, with the emergency fire restoration funds attached.

Yet the spending windfall puts the pressure on the Forest Service to produce results. Congress may continue to fund forestry agencies at a higher clip, observers say, but only if the threat of fires diminishes quickly.

The pressure is rising even as Dombeck attempts to deal with more controversial matters, such as his agency's recently announced plans to prohibit road construction and timber harvesting in 58.5 million acres of federal land by 2004 (commonly referred to as the "roadless" policy).

"If the Forest Service does the right job with this money, I think Congress will respond favorably in the future," said Michael Joergen, director of Forest Policy at the Society of American Foresters. That having been said, Joergen added, he has doubts regarding whether the money will be used wisely.

BLM and the Forest Service have already begun the process of attempting to lower the wildfire-threat threshold, boosting the number of acres either thinned or burned each year from 500,000 acres in 1994 to 2.2 million acres in 1999. Both agencies plan to use emergency federal dollars to further address forest fuels by removing brush, small trees and other forms of kindling that spark wildfires.

Of course, some argue the administration's proposed roadless policy handcuffs the logging industry by preventing it from self-managing forests. The Society of American Foresters, for instance, thinks Dombeck's roadless policy indirectly increases the likelihood of more wildfires in the near future.

"It removes a necessary tool and restricts management that may be necessary for the health of the nation's forests," said Bill Banzhaf, executive vice president at SAF. "The banning of commercial timber harvesting in roadless areas of national forests is not good for the forests."

Dombeck argues the Forest Service's roadless policy lowers the threat of fires by allowing the agency to focus resources away from road construction and maintenance. Fire starts also occur less frequently in unroaded areas, according to a recent Forest Service report. Also, the policy allows selected timbers harvests when needed to improve habitat for endangered species, reduce the threat of fire and restore ecosystems.

The roadless policy will likely become official in mid-December, following a final environmental impact statement.

The policy has caught some heat from Republicans on the Hill, especially the Alaska delegation, which strongly opposes the administration's decision to include Alaska's Tongass National Forest by 2004.

Tongass' 9.5 million acres makes it the largest national forest in the United States.

(C) 2000 UPI. All Rights Reserved.

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The fallout from the record wildfire season, he said, has produced both increased federal funding for forestry agencies neglected in past budget battles and heightened public awareness about land management techniques. Speaking before a Society of American Foresters...
Sunday, 19 November 2000 12:00 AM
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