WASHINGTON - New Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell received a less than gracious welcome Tuesday as she appeared before Congress for the first time as chief.
Defending the president's spending request for the next budget year, Kimbell came under fire from all sides.
"This is a rough and, in my view, a very unworkable budget," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee.
"I feel sorry for you, having to support this 'let's pretend' budget," added Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Kimbell, the first woman to head the Forest Service, began her new post Feb. 5, the same day President Bush announced a budget request that cuts Forest Service spending by 2 percent and eliminates more than 2,100 jobs in the budget year that starts in October.
"It's difficult," Kimbell acknowledged after the hearing. "There will be some real challenges."
Bush's $4.1 billion budget request for the 2008 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 represents a 1.6 percent cut from estimated spending for the current year, and is down nearly 4 percent from fiscal year 2006.
Even so, the plan would boost spending to fight forest fires by 23 percent to $911 million, a recognition that firefighting costs have topped $1 billion in four of the past seven years. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the Forest Service in the past for under-budgeting for fire expenses, noting that money is often taken from other accounts to pay for fire suppression.
But Dicks, who took over as subcommittee chairman last month after serving on the panel for 30 years, said the budget request "has big problems."
While it increases spending for firefighting, it cuts money for fire "preparedness," work done to thin overcrowded forest to reduce the risk of fire.
"We all know that in order to keep suppression costs down, initial attack is vital. Yet this budget proposes a $92 million reduction in preparedness, so more fires would escape and cause damage," Dicks said.
Dicks and other lawmakers also attacked an administration plan to sell more than 200,000 acres of national forest to help rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.
"I have grave doubts about this proposal and I wonder why something so soundly rejected last year would appear again," Dicks said.
Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., called the land sale plan "totally unrealistic" and said, "It's certainly not going to happen in the current Congress."
Kimbell and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, said the land sale plan makes several changes from last year. Most importantly, it would ensure than at least half the revenue from the sales would stay in the state where the land is sold.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., told Rey the plan was "better than last year," but still problematic. She complained that more than 21,500 acres of the Mark Twain National Forest are set to be sold, with Missouri only receiving half the proceeds.
On a positive note, Dicks said he was encouraged that the administration called for fully funding the three-state Northwest Forest Plan. The president would spend $187 million in fiscal year 2008 - an increase of $71 million over 2006 - to achieve a timber harvest of up to 800 million board feet in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. That would represent a doubling of timber sales in the region and would be the highest level of timber production in the Northwest in a decade.
The Northwest Forest Plan, completed in 1994, promised annual timber sales of about 1 billion board feet while taking other steps to protect habitat for the northern spotted owl and other threatened species.
Timber sales have never come close to that level, a fact the timber industry and its supporters in Congress have complained about repeatedly.
"For more than a decade, rural communities in the Pacific Northwest have been waiting for their elected officials in Washington, D.C., to fulfill the level of forest management promised by the (Northwest Forest) plan," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group.
The president's budget request "is the critical first step for our rural communities, our forests and our wildlife," Partin said, adding that increased timber receipts in the region could benefit rural counties and school districts searching for more money.
Environmental groups said the proposal could reduce or even eliminate wildlife protection in the region by increasing the number of old-growth trees that are cut.
"We're not opposed to careful thinning operations on the national forest, but our concern is that this will be aimed at the ancient forests" of the Northwest, said Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst for The Wilderness Society.
On the Net:
Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us/
Wilderness Society: www.wilderness.org