WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congressman Bob Smith (R-Or), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, at a full committee oversight hearing today pressed Chief Mike Domback of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to produce a budget request that achieves his stated goals for improving forest managment.
In testimony before the Agriculture Committee last Fall and again in his "Natural Resources Agenda for the 21st Century," Chief Dombeck stated that there are 40 million acres of national forests at extreme risk of catastrophic wildfire. Acknowledging that the USFS's "first priority is to maintain and restore the health of our ecosystems and watersheds," the Agenda proposes to increase fuels reduction treatment to 1.5 million acres in 1999, while doubling the amount of thinning in unnaturally dense forest stands over the next five years.
"At this rate, it will take nearly 30 years to address the problem. Furthermore, the Chief's budget decreases by nearly $7.5 million the amount requested for Forestland Vegetation Management with no mention of the thinning proposed in his natural resources agenda. The budget simply doesn't match the policy rhetoric," Smith said.
In 1997, the USFS estimated its road reconstruction backlog at $5-6 billion. While the USDA Inspector General concluded that this estimate was inflated and had no reliable statistical basis, the USFS has more recently increased its claim stating that the backlog is now up to $10 billion. Yet, the USFS budget request will leave 55 percent of forest roads below the full service standard.
"This Committee has yet to be briefed on this backlog. At this point we don't know if it's real or imaginary. Assuming it's real, however, the budget request to address the problem is meager, at best. When you add the combined road reconstruction and road maintenance budget together, it totals less than two percent of the stated backlog. Again, the budget simply doesn't match the rhetoric," Smith said.
Smith further questioned the allocation to "Overhead and Program Management" of almost 33 percent of the USFS budget request for Forest Roads. "In fact," Smith said, "it charges more to overhead than it puts on the ground for road reconstruction. If this is any indication of what is happening to other programs within the agency, then I have little hope that any level of funding increase will have positive impacts on our forests. Quite frankly, I am beginning to believe those who claim that the Forest Service mission of 'Caring for the Land and Serving People' has changed to 'Staring at the Land and Serving Bureaucrats'."
"I have accepted the Administration's invitation to make our National Forest "a common ground, not a political battleground." However, it is nearly impossible to find common ground with an Administration that is more intent on paying lip service to the forest than on managing it. A responsible budget that moves more dollars to on-the-ground management is critical if we are to ever move beyond politics and actually improve the health of the land. Congress is still waiting for that budget," Smith said.
Today's oversight hearing emphasized four main issues: General Administration, Watershed and Forest Health Restoration, Transportation Infrastructure, and Forest Inventory and Analysis.
Smith represents Oregon's Second Congressional District - which includes most of eastern, central, and southern Oregon - in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district is home to ten national forests.