Implementation of the Healthy Forests Initiative

 

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act Provides New Tools to Protect and Restore Our Lands

 

I have sent you a Healthy Forests Initiative, to help prevent the catastrophic fires that devastate communities, kill wildlife, and burn away millions of acres of treasured forest. I urge you to pass these measures, for the good of both our environment and our economy.

 

- President George W. Bush, January 28, 2003

President Bush Signs Healthy Forest Legislation into Law.

 

Background: The Worst Fire Seasons in 50 Years

 

      An estimated 190 million acres of public lands are at elevated risk of severe wildfires. In 2000 and 2002, the United States suffered two of our worst wildland fire seasons in 50 years.

 

      Last years fire season saw 88,458 fires burn roughly 7 million acres, destroy more than 800 structures, and take the lives of 23 firefighters.

 

      New Mexico, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona registered their worst fires in modern history in 2002, and California suffered its worst wildland fire season in 2003. In California alone, more than 739,000 acres burned more than 3,600 homes, 22 civilians died as a result of the fires, and it cost $250 million to contain the fires.

 

The Healthy Forests Initiative

 

The President introduced his Healthy Forests Initiative in August 2002 at the height of one of the worst fire seasons the Nation has ever experienced. Tragically, the dangers and losses associated with catastrophic fire extended into 2003. With assistance from Congress and through administrative actions, work began on high priority thinning and restoration projects. In passing the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, Congress has provided the Administration additional tools needed to fully implement the Presidents Healthy Forests Initiative.

 

Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003

 

On November 21, 2003, Congress made a strong bi-partisan commitment to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire to communities and restore our nations forest and rangelands by passing HR 1904, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. The legislation provides new tools and additional authorities to restore more acres more quickly:

 

      Strengthens public participation in developing high priority forest health projects;

 

      Reduces the complexity of environmental analysis;

 

      Provides a more effective appeals process encouraging early public participation in project planning; and

 

      Instructs courts being asked to halt projects to balance the short-term effects of implementing the projects against the harm from undue delay and the long-term benefits of a restored forest.

 


Administrative Improvements At Work

 

Under President Bushs leadership, the federal land management agencies have implemented several administrative initiatives to help expedite projects aimed to restore forest and rangeland health including:

 

      New procedures, provided under the National Environmental Policy Act, to allow priority fuels reduction and forest restoration projects identified through collaboration with state, local and tribal governments and interested parties to move forward more quickly. The Forest Service has implemented at least 46 high priority projects using the new procedures, and the Bureau of Land Management is currently implementing more than 20 projects.

 

      Improvement of the agencies administrative appeal rules to encourage early and more meaningful public participation to expedite appeals of forest health projects. To date, the Forest Service has initiated approximately 166 projects under the revised appeals regulation with only nine appeals reported.

 

      Guidance to Federal agencies to make consultations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) more timely and better account for long-term benefits to threatened and endangered species, and proposing new regulations under ESA to expedite consultation for forest health projects that are not likely to harm threatened or endangered species or their habitat.

 

      Guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality to improve environmental assessments (EAs) for priority forest health projects. The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have implemented this guidance by preparing EAs for 15 pilot fuels treatment projects. Thus far, the agencies have completed EAs using the enhanced process on 13 of the 15 pilot projects.

 

      New regulations under ESA, completed by the Fish & Wildlife Service, that are expected to significantly accelerate the planning, review and implementation of activities under the National Fire Plan.

 

Stewardship Contracting Legislation

 

      In December 2002, Congress enacted legislation proposed by the Bush Administration expanding stewardship contracting authority, which allows Federal agencies to enter into long-term (up to 10 years) contracts with small businesses, communities and nonprofit organizations to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health.

 

      The new authority allows contractors, community groups, and others to keep the wood material as partial payment for their service, while improving environmental conditions and adhering to applicable environmental regulations.

 

      Long-term contracts foster a public/private partnership to restore forest and rangeland health by giving contractors the incentive to invest in equipment and facilities needed to productively use material from forest thinning to make useful wood products or to produce biomass energy, all at a savings to taxpayers.

 

      The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have approved stewardship contracts using the new authority requested by the President and provided by Congress. Stewardship contracting will increase as NEPA work is completed in 2004.

 

Improved Coordination

 

In 2003, DOI and USDA formed the Interagency Wildland Fire Leadership Council to further implement the National Fire Plan and to combat wildland fires more effectively. The council provides a coordinated, seamless management structure to all aspects of wildland fire policy and integrates federal fire activities with those of states, tribes and local governments, including land restoration and rehabilitation.

 


Record Amounts of Hazardous Fuels Restoration Work Accomplished

 

      In 2002, Federal land management agencies restored a record 2.25 million acres, an increase of a million acres over FY 2000 levels.

 

      In 2003, the agencies have already broken that record, restoring 2.6 million acres.

 

      The wildland-urban interface (WUI) and public and private lands of concern to communities at risk are a top priority nearly 65 percent of forest restoration dollars has been invested in this area.

 

      Between 2001 and 2003, Federal agencies have increased our restoration of land in the WUI from 775,000 acres to 1,600,000 acres, more than doubling WUI acres treated.

 

      From 2001-2003, agencies treated a total of 7 million acres. By the end of FY 2004, that total will come to nearly 9.5 million acres.

 

      Since 2000, funding for hazardous fuels reduction has tripled to $546 million this year for federal, state, tribal, and private projects. Future funding will be provided based on program performance and efficiencies achieved by this legislation, the new stewardship contracting authority, and other administrative program improvements.

 

For more information on the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 and the Healthy Forests Initiative, please visit http://www.fs.fed.us/projects/hfi/ or http://www.doi.gov/initiatives/forest.html