Washington, USA — New Forest Service Chief GailKimbell received a less than gracious welcome Tuesday as she appeared beforeCongress for the first time as chief.
Defending the president’s spending request for the next budget year, Kimbellcame under fire from all sides.
“This is a rough and, in my view, a very unworkable budget,” said Rep.Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee.
“I feel sorry for you, having to support this ‘let’s pretend’ budget,”added Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Kimbell, the first woman to head the ForestService, began her new post Feb. 5, the same day President Bush announced abudget request that cuts Forest Service spending by 2 percent and eliminatesmore than 2,100 jobs in the budget year that starts in October.
“It’s difficult,” Kimbell acknowledged after the hearing. “Therewill be some real challenges.”
Bush’s $4.1 billion budget request for the 2008 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1represents a 1.6 percent cut from estimated spending for the current year, andis down nearly 4 percent from fiscal year 2006.
Even so, the plan would boost spending to fight forest fires by 23 percent to$911 million, a recognition that firefighting costs have topped $1 billion infour of the past seven years. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized theForest Service in the past for under-budgeting for fire expenses, noting thatmoney is often taken from other accounts to pay for fire suppression.
But Dicks, who took over as subcommittee chairman last month after serving onthe panel for 30 years, said the budget request “has big problems.”
While it increases spending for firefighting, it cuts money for fire “preparedness,”work done to thin overcrowded forest to reduce the risk of fire.
“We all know that in order to keep suppression costs down, initial attackis vital. Yet this budget proposes a $92 million reduction in preparedness, somore fires would escape and cause damage,” Dicks said.
Dicks and other lawmakers also attacked an administration plan to sell more than200,000 acres of national forest to help rural counties hurt by cutbacks infederal logging.
“I have grave doubts about this proposal and I wonder why something sosoundly rejected last year would appear again,” Dicks said.
Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., called the land sale plan “totallyunrealistic” and said, “It’s certainly not going to happen in thecurrent Congress.”
Kimbell and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy,said the land sale plan makes several changes from last year. Most importantly,it would ensure than at least half the revenue from the sales would stay in thestate where the land is sold.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., told Rey the plan was “better than last year,”but still problematic. She complained that more than 21,500 acres of the MarkTwain National Forest are set to be sold, with Missouri only receiving half theproceeds.
On a positive note, Dicks said he was encouraged that the administration calledfor fully funding the three-state Northwest Forest Plan. The president wouldspend $187 million in fiscal year 2008 — an increase of $71 million over 2006– to achieve a timber harvest of up to 800 million board feet in Washington,Oregon and Northern California. That would represent a doubling of timber salesin the region and would be the highest level of timber production in theNorthwest in a decade.
The Northwest Forest Plan, completed in 1994, promised annual timber sales ofabout 1 billion board feet while taking other steps to protect habitat for thenorthern spotted owl and other threatened species.
Timber sales have never come close to that level, a fact the timber industry andits supporters in Congress have complained about repeatedly.
“For more than a decade, rural communities in the Pacific Northwest havebeen waiting for their elected officials in Washington, D.C., to fulfill thelevel of forest management promised by the (Northwest Forest) plan,” saidTom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group.
The president’s budget request “is the critical first step for our ruralcommunities, our forests and our wildlife,” Partin said, adding thatincreased timber receipts in the region could benefit rural counties and schooldistricts searching for more money.
Environmental groups said the proposal could reduce or even eliminate wildlifeprotection in the region by increasing the number of old-growth trees that arecut.
“We’re not opposed to careful thinning operations on the national forest,but our concern is that this will be aimed at the ancient forests” of theNorthwest, said Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst for The WildernessSociety.