USA — Named Friday to head the U.S. Forest Service, Montana forester Gail Kimbell quickly came under fire from a Senate Democrat who represents her state.
Kimbell, the first woman to hold the job, succeeds retiring chief Dale Bosworth.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Kimbell has shown she is “inclined to raise fees, close campgrounds and otherwise make it harder for people to access their lands to raiserevenue.”
Kimbell, who before her appointment supervised national forests through northern Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas, helped develop President Bush’s “healthy forests” program widely criticized by environmentalists as a giveaway to logging companies.
Signed into law in 2003 after wildfires swept the West, the program lets companies log large, commercially valuable trees in national forests in exchange for clearing smaller, more fire-prone trees and brush.
By the end of next year, federal officials project the new law and other logging initiatives will have resulted in more than 21.5 million acres of forest cut since 2001.
Senate OK not required
As the agency’s 16th chief, Kimbell will be responsible for overseeing 155 national forests, 30,000 employees and a nearly $5 billion budget. The job doesn’t require Senate confirmation.
“Gail brings a wealth of knowledge to her new position,” said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who announced her appointment.
Kimbell also has overseen forests and grasslands in Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming, and supervised Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest. A New England native, she grew up hiking, fishing and camping in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. After earning forestry degrees from universities in Vermont and Oregon, she began her career in 1974 in Oregon, where she was a ranger, logging engineer and district planner.
By the end of next year, the Forest Service must evaluate all the national forests and 20 grasslands and their amenities, such as campgrounds and restrooms, answering such questions as how frequently they are used and how well they fit into the overall purpose of the area.
About 1,500 campgrounds are located on Montana’s Forest Service land, according to Baucus’ office.
The agency faces a $300 million-plus backlog in maintenance and rising costs for fire suppression, which now account for more than a third of the agency’s budget.
Bosworth, a career forester who became chief in April 2001, will step down Feb. 2.
Johanns said the Forest Service achieved a fourfold increase in the amount of fire-prone trees and brush cleared from national forests under Bosworth’s direction.
Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., praised the retiring chief for dealing better with severe wildfires, invasive species, development of forests and grasslands and damage caused by motorized vehicles.
Bosworth was a key player in Bush’s program to increase timber sales and auction off oil and gas leases in roadless areas of national forests. The Clinton administration had put that land off-limits to commercial development.
Among the most controversial decisions during his tenure has been the Bush administration’s promotion of logging in the Tongass. Some of the areas the Clinton administration had tried to protect have trails and roads, but many are considered pristine havens for wildlife and waterways or are prized for their scenery and recreation.