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Washington outlook.

Political brinkmanship is the current focus of attention in Washington, DC. The debate over the emergency supplemental spending bill, primarily for the Iraq war, appears to be leading Congress and the President toward a major political showdown. Nevertheless, there is a great need for Congress and the President to get beyond this conflict and take action on other important issues, such as the Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 budget and the 2007 Farm Bill.

One major forestry issue carried over from last year is reauthorizing and funding the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. This legislation has provided federal support for rural schools and collaborative projects on national forests, replacing earlier payments to counties based on a percentage of timber revenues. While a high priority, especially for western states such as Oregon, California, and Washington, efforts to take action on it failed last year and the bill expired.

The current emergency supplemental spending bill has become a vehicle for possible action on the Act. The House has included a one-year, $400 million extension of the legislation in its version, while the Senate has included a $2.8 billion extension of the legislation through 2011. In addition, the Senate proposal would provide $1.9 billion to fully fund the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which complements county payments in supporting rural communities. While these proposals are promising, there is still considerable uncertainty about how the provisions will fare as Congress and the Administration complete action on the supplemental spending bill.

Heavily constrained by the broader budget context, the Administration's FY 2008 budget proposals for the Forest Service would reduce overall spending for the agency and set strong priorities. While the Administration's broad goals and strategies still focus on restoring healthy forests through cooperative conservation, its spending proposals severely cut many programs that American Forests believes are critical to collaborative forest restoration, such as those providing technical and financial assistance to rural and urban communities for innovative projects and building local capacity.

The Administration's top priority for the Forest Service is wildland fire suppression, which is having a dramatic impact on the agency's budget. The agency's approach to budgeting for wildfire suppression has been based on a 10-year average of suppression costs. With large wildfire seasons and suppression costs exceeding $1 billion in four of the last seven years, the 10-year average has increased significantly. This year's proposal would increase wildfire suppression funding by 23 percent to $911 million--amounting to 20 percent of the agency's $4.65 billion budget. Such increases in wildfire suppression funding are having a major impact on funding for the agency's other programs--and on its ability to pursue some basic resource management functions.

Among the Administration's proposed cuts are long-standing priorities of AMERICAN FORESTS'. Assistance programs to rural communities and landowners have been cut across the board, such as Economic Action Programs (eliminated), State Fire Assistance under the National Fire Plan (down 19 percent), and the Forest Stewardship Program (down 41 percent). The major program providing assistance to and encouraging collaboration with local governments and non-governmental groups in urban areas--Urban and Community Forestry--has been cut by 38 percent. These cuts are being proposed at a time when concerns have risen sharply about the conversion and fragmentation of private forests due to development.

AMERICAN FORESTS is also concerned about the Administration's proposal to eliminate funding for the Rehabilitation and Restoration program, a key program under the National Fire Plan that should be focusing on collaborative forest restoration. We believe the Administration has been under-emphasizing the importance of this program since it was included as a significant component of the National Fire Plan in 2000.

Millions of acres have burned since then--nearly 10 million acres burned last year alone, about half on federal lands--yet the agency has not developed a clear approach to assessing the need for forest restoration on burned-over lands and implementing actions. AMERICAN FORESTS has been cooperating with the Forest Service for several years through Wildfire ReLeaf, planting trees on burned-over lands for environmental restoration purposes. We believe that "keeping forests as forests" should be one of the agency's highest priorities, and that greater funding is needed for the Rehabilitation and Restoration program to better understand and address post-fire restoration concerns.

The 2007 Farm Bill made little progress in Congress last year due to international trade negotiations and congressional elections. With the new Congress organized, it appears the House and Senate are eager to begin working on their Farm Bill proposals.

The House Budget Committee recently passed a budget resolution including a $20 billion reserve fund for the Farm Bill, provided any new spending is paid for with offsetting cuts. Agriculture Committee chairman Colin Peterson of Minnesota says he would support the use of this reserve fund for increased spending on conservation and renewable energy programs. The Senate passed a budget resolution with a similar $15 billion reserve fund, with language directing increased spending toward rural development and renewable energy programs, as well as agricultural tax relief. These reserve funds might provide an opportunity for increased spending on forestry programs as well. It will be important for forestry groups involved in the Farm Bill to explore this opportunity as the House and Senate agriculture committees begin developing their legislative proposals.

In January, the Administration released its proposals for the 2007 Farm Bill, based on a series of listening sessions conducted around the country last year by U.S. Secretary Mike Johanns. A number of these reflect recommendations submitted to the Administration by AMERICAN FORESTS and community-based forestry partners, including a Landscape Scale Forestry Competitive Grants Program, a Forest Wood to Energy Program, a Community Forests Working Lands Program, and a Private Sector Environmental Markets program. While only general outlines are provided in the Administration's proposals, they provide a good starting point for discussion and development through congressional action on the Farm Bill.
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Title Annotation:News from the world of Trees
Author:Gray, Gerry
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Previous Article:U.S. Forest Service.
Next Article:Fill in tree rot?

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