FIRES PUT FOREST PROJECTS ON HOLD

July 11, 2002 12:00 am

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Several forest restoration projects planned for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest will not move forward this year because of lack of funds.

A directive from Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth requires federal forests to defer spending on "non-emergency contracts for any purpose other than those contracts that are required for critical ongoing business."

Bosworth cited the high cost of national fire suppression this year as the reason for the directive, and he said costs may exceed $966 million.

Diane Snyder, executive director of Wallowa Resources, said Wednesday that money should not be taken from forest restoration and thinning for firefighting. Wallowa Resources is a Wallowa County organization that promotes economic and environmental sustainability.

"When you have a hurricane that destroys buildings, there is emergency funding. You don't take money from housing," she said.

Plans to mitigate conditions within and on the edges of national forests could suffer from Bosworth's directive, Snyder said.

Snyder and Brett Brownscombe of Hells Canyon Preservation Council urged the Forest Service to create a fire management plan. Without such a plan, all wildland fires must be suppressed.

"The bottom line is we need an allocation now (for restoration). It is important for the resources, the industry," she said. "We need the Forest Service to work on a fire management plan to help identify places at risk."

La Grande District Ranger Kurt Wiedenmann said some projects planned for this summer will not take place, including an inventory of wet meadows and some instream restoration.

"There has been a local effect on contractors who had planned to do some projects," Wiedenmann said. "It's a frustrating thing for us and them."

Snyder, too, is concerned about the loss of jobs that could result from the directive.

It is not known how many projects will be affected. Wiedenmann said some restoration project money comes from sources outside the Forest Service allocation, and he said he believes those projects will take place.

Synder is not so sure.

"My fear is: When you look at the way these projects are structured with partners, you identify who does what, and the capacity for the Forest Service to do their part will be affected," she said.

Patty Burel, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Region of the Forest Service, said, "We don't know when this will end. "Everyone has to defer nonessential obligations, that includes travel and other internal processes."

Bosworth wrote that if by the end of July, suppression costs have stabilized or if additional money is available, "we will free up funds for critical needs, including meeting our obligations to important partners such as grants to states."

"We must be in a position to protect life and property from wildfire and do so within the funds available to the agency," he wrote.

Snyder said she is concerned that money for community fire prevention projects, administered by the Oregon Department of Forestry, may also be delayed, affecting the ability of private landowners to thin and clear underbrush from lands adjacent to forests.

The Congress budgeted nearly $2.3 billion for all fire costs, including the National Fire Plan, this year.

Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee authorized an additional $700 million for next year's firefighting, $200 million more that proposed by President Bush. That measure must go to the full House.

The $700 million, considered emergency money, must be spent by the end of 2002.

A Senate committee will hold hearings Tuesday on an administration plan to request additional funds for firefighting, and community forestry organizations are sending a representative to testify in support of additional funds.