WASHINGTON The Bush administration will ask Congress to increase funding to $867 million in fiscal year 2006 for a plan to help reduce the risk of wildfires in federal forests, a senior administration official said Thursday.
The U.S. Agriculture Department’s Forest Service division and the Interior Department, which work together to fight forest fires, received $811 million in the current budget year for the forest management plan.
Environmentalists have criticized the program as a way to give logging companies more access to timber under the guise of forest protection.
The proposed increase will be part of the federal budget request that the White House will submit on Monday to Congress, which will spend months debating and modifying the budget. The 2006 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
The forest management program, approved by Congress in 2003, aims to cut procedural delays at federal agencies and develop new ways to reduce the threat of wildfires on 10 million acres of fire-prone forest over several years.
Mark Rey, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s undersecretary of natural resources, told reporters about $492 million of the requested $867 million in 2006 would be used to remove hazardous underbrush from more than 4 million acres of land. The rest would be spent to improve landscapes and wildlife habitats.
Rey said the program would focus on thinning forests near houses. By the end of fiscal year 2006, more than half of areas treated will be where people live.
This will result in the removal of more wood products — ranging from biomass to commercial grade lumber — because prescribed burning programs would be used less often, he said. In 2004, 277,000 acres, or about 5 percent of the 4 million acres treated, had lumber or wood products removed.
Rey and Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary of the interior, declined to comment on other details of the 2006 budget for their agencies.