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Washington outlook.

The 107th Congress closed with a flurry of activity on forest policy issues driven by concerns about wildfire management. But in the end, bigger policy questions and the political dynamics of an election year squelched attempts at bipartisan action. Forestry issues were put off for the next Congress.

Congress returned from its summer recess in early September with a sense of determination to do something about wildfire. Huge fires had burned in many western states, threatening forests, communities, watersheds, and fish and wildlife habitot. The Forest Service had already long exhausted its funding appropriated for wildfire suppression in fiscal year 2002 (about $300 million) and was projecting that it would spend more than $1 billion in excess of its appropriation by the end of the fire season. To pay for these emergency suppression casts, the agency was "borrowing" funds from other programs, deferring--ar perhaps foregoing--a wide range of program activities.

Whether Congress and the Administration would provide supplemental funds to cover the costs of emergency wildfire suppressian and allow the agency to restore funds to the other programs was a question tied up in a larger set of budget questions related to emergency funding for the war on terrorism and new homeland security concerns.

President Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative" provided significant impetus for the legislative debates in the Senate and the House, A key objective of the President's proposals was to expedite hazardous fuels reduction projects, such as thinning small-diameter trees and removing brush and woody debris, in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Senator Larry Craig (ID) introduced an amendment to the Senate Interior Appropriations bill (5. 2078) that included provisions from the President's proposals to expedite hazardous fuels reduction projects, including exemptions from environmental review requirements and limitations on administrative appeals and judicial review. Senators Jeff Bingaman (NM) and Tom Daschle (SD) offered an alternative amendment to Senator Craig's, which provided opportunities to increase the number of thinning projects in more defined areas, with other project limitations, and with greater monitoring requirements. These competing amendments led to a stalemate in the Senate.

These and other senators engaged in a bipartisan negotiation process to resolve their differences. The effort ultimately broke down due to the political dynamics of the approaching election.

Similarly in the House, Rep. Scott Mclnnis (CO) brought together a bipartisan group of cangressmen, including George Miller (CA) and Peter DeFazio (OR), to develop a proposal on expediting hazardous fuels-reduction projects that would be broadly acceptable. This negotiation process focused on HR. 5319, a bill introduced by Rep. Mclnnis that differed from President Bush's proposals.

The members made progress on a framework, agreeing to a five-year program of "thinning" projects in limited areas, faster environmental analyses but with full public comment periods, and tighter deadlines for administrative and judicial review processes. However, as the election neared, pressures mounted and they could not agree on final details.

Congress was not able to take action on this, despite repeated efforts by AMERICAN FORESTS, our community-based forestry partners, and many others in the forestry and conservation community urging Congress and the Administration to provide emergency appropriations so that the Forest Service could restore funds to the many programs and projects affected by its "borrowing" far wildfire suppression.

The complexity of the overall federal budget situation--which led Congress to postpone action on Fiscal Year 2003 spending until next year-did not allow action on this relatively small matter, despite strong congressional support for emergency wildfire funding. There is still hope that Congress will provide emergency wildfire funds for last summer when it takes action on the FY 2003 Interior Appropriations bill, supposedly, in January.

With the Republicans regaining control of the Senate, the context of policy debate on forestry issues will be different in the next Congress. The Administration and Congress will want to demonstrate leadership on wildfire and funding issues, and they are likely to propose actions soon after the year begins. Those who want to engage in these policy discussions will need to prepare soon, and reviewing the proposals debated by the 107th Congress is the best place to begin.
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Author:Gray, Gerry
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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