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Washington outlook.

Over the past few months, Congress has again engaged in the debate aver wildfire threats an our federal forests and the need to protect communities and forest ecosystems from destructive wildfires. The debate has been framed by President Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative" (HFI) and complicated by participants' need to consider a variety of proposals for new legislative authorities and administrative rule changes, as well as annual funding. AMERICAN FORESTS and our community-based forestry partners have attempted to maintain an active presence in this debate, but it hasn't been easy.

As I mentioned in the Spring issue (Washington, Outlook, P. 21), the FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill passed by Congress in February included a rider authorizing expanded use of stewardship contracting authorities for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Those authorities, a key component of the President's HFI, would allow multi-year contracts and the exchange of goods, such as small-diameter timber, for land services under the same contract. AMERICAN FORESTS and a number of its partners urged the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to convene a meeting of diverse interest groups and individuals experienced in stewardship-contracting projects before developing guidelines for new expanded authorities.

The goal of the meeting, which the Secretaries held in April through the Pinchot Institute for Conservation with assistance from AMERICAN FORESTS, was to build trust and share knowledge gained through and from 84 existing pilot projects. The report from this "National Outreach Forum" captured many perspectives on stewardship contracting and offered suggestions on implementing the new authorities. The agencies' proposed interim guidelines are being released as we go to press, and we plan to comment on them by the July 28 deadline.

In the last issue, I also mentioned several administrative rule changes proposed by the Administration. These changes would make it easier for the Forest Service to implement certain types of projects, such as hazardous fuels reduction and small-timber sales, by requiring less environmental analysis and limiting administrative appeals. AMERICAN FORESTS supports some of these concepts, but we're concerned about the increased discretion allotted to agency officials and the limited guidance given for increased collaboration with local stakeholders and for multiparty monitoring, an effort to ensure learning. Several of these proposed rule changes have recently become final, and they can have important effects on how the Forest Service will actually implement projects. We see increased collaboration and multiparty monitoring as mechanisms to participate with the Forest Service and track what is being accomplished.

The most significant debate in Congress of late has been over legislative proposals. The House quickly passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (H.R. 1904) in May, with little opportunity for debate. Introduced by Reps. Scott Mclnnis (RCO) and Greg Walden (R-OR), the bill gained some bipartisan support but was strongly opposed by western Democratic leaders. Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) offered an alternative, the Federal Lands Hazardous Fuels Reduction Act" (HR 1621), which was defeated.

The Senate began action on H.R. 1904 with a recent hearing in the Agriculture Committee, It's unclear how the Committee will proceed with developing a bill, but Sen. Michael Crapo (R-ID), who chaired the hearing, suggested it wants to move the legislation quickly. In the meantime, two Democrat-sponsored bills have been introduced as alternatives. Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Tom Daschle (D-ND) have introduced the Collaborative Forest Health Act (S.13 14) and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) have introduced S1352 to expedite hazardous fuels reduction projects on national forests.

AMERICAN FORESTS based its comments on HR 1904 largely on a framework for addressing hazardous fuels reduction that we prepared this spring with our communitybased forestry partners (see www.americanforests.org/resources). We focused on those sections dealing with collaboration and monitoring for hazardous fuels reduction. As it stands, the bill says simply that these activities should be done in a manner consistent with the comprehensive strategy's 10-year implementation plan developed by the Western Governors Association (see editorial, p. 5).

We suggested additional language to help clarify the intent of collaboration and emphasize the importance of inclusiveness at the local level. We also suggested the bill include a call for multi-party monitoring to help build trust and ensure learning among the diverse parties interested in these projects. We sought to avoid language that would mandate how the agencies would carry out the collaboration and monitoring but tried to provide sufficient guidance to strengthen these key provisions and encourage consistency.

We also urged Congress to identify funding sources for these activities, which have often gone unfinished from a lack of funding, and to include regional training teams of agency contracting officers, local contractors, and community representatives with experience in collaboration and multiparty monitoring.

These provisions would help with the significant challenges of building capacity both within the agencies and the local communities while implementing needed hazardous fuels-reduction projects.
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Title Annotation:debate on President Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative"
Author:Gray, Gerry
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Words:810
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