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Washington outlook.

The start of 2003 has been fast, confusing, and somewhat unsettling for forest policy at the notional level. The 108th Congress began with some major unfinished business from the last Congress, the Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 appropriations bills.

This tendency seems to be true in the forest policy arena as well, as the Administration continues to press for policies supporting the President's "Healthy Forests Initiative" (HFI). HFI is among President Bush's top policy priorities, and the Administration is aggressively proposing new legislative authorities and administrative rule changes to make the different components of HFI a reality.

Overarching these discussions were concerns about going to war with Iraq, a slumping national economy, and growing federal budget deficits. In this political environment, congressional action has been subdued. To a significant degree, it seems Congress has deferred to the Administration to demonstrate and test its leadership, particularly as President Bush decided to go to war.

Congress' debate over the FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill covered all appropriations bills for federal programs, including the Interior Appropriations bill that funds the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other natural resource management programs. Diverse interests in the forestry and conservation community, including AMERICAN FORESTS, worked together to urge Congress to provide additional funds to pay back money borrowed from federal agencies to fight wildfires last summer. The broad support far this request helped Congress pass $825 million for that.

The Omnibus Appropriations bill also included several controversial "riders." One proposed expanding the use of stewardship contracting by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, a proposal that matches one of the key legislative components of the President's HFI. This rider quickly became controversial; many environmental and conservation groups felt it premature to expand stewardship contracting from its pilot status while new authorities, such as "goods-for-services," were not well understood and might be applied inappropriately.

AMERICAN FORESTS was already on record as advocating the development of more information about the stewardship contracting authorities through multiparty monitoring of 84 existing pilot projects. As the rider moved quickly through Congress, we wrote a set of letters to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton urging them to open up the process of developing national guidelines for implementing the new stewardship contracting provisions. Our first letter, cosigned by several community forestry partners, expressed concern that the rider "could severely damage the significant level of trust that has been being built among diverse community interests--including local environmental and industry groups as well as a range of local government agencies, nonprofit groups and other business enterprises--through their participation in the existing Forest Service stewardship contracting demonstration program" (see For o copy of the letters). We are currently working wit h partners on a midApril meeting where diverse interests from around the country will be able to tell federal agencies their views on national guidance for program implementation.

The Administration's FY 2004 spending proposals were released in early February and are currently being considered by Congress. Proposals for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management highlight the HFI and the National Fire Plan. AMERICAN FORESTS' testimony on these proposals reflects our focus on programs that restore and maintain healthy ecosystems through efforts that openly engage communities (see our website for o transcript of the testimony). For example, we support the Administration's proposed $231 million for thinning small-diameter trees and reducing hazardous fuels under the National Fire Plan, but we urge the Administration to improve collaborative mechanisms with communities and community capacity building through programs such as rural community assistance. We are concerned that the Administration has again eliminated funding for rural community assistance in its FY 2004 budget. Our testimony also recognizes the Administration's continued support for Urban and Community Forestry, but we urge Congress to increase funding from $38 million to $50 million for critical ecological and "green infrastructure" needs for major metropolitan areas.

Finally, the Bush Administration has proposed a number of administrative rule changes to help federal agencies implement natural resource management programs more expediently. The Administration has also released a major revision of the rules affecting National Forest Management Act implementation. AMERICAN FORESTS' comments on these proposals generally reflect our belief that the Administration needs to engage communities in an open and transparent planning process, ensure multiparty monitoring for learning and to take corrective action. Specific comments on these proposed rule changes can be found on website.
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Author:Gray, Gerry
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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