Forests to receive $15 million for fire restoration

By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian

Montana - 4/14/03 - Official says work from 2000 fires 'on track'

National forests in Montana will be reimbursed $15 million of the

$40 million they surrendered last summer to pay wildland firefighting bills elsewhere in the West, regional forester Brad Powell said Tuesday.

Most of that money - nearly $14 million - will go to the Bitterroot, Lolo, Flathead and Helena national forests so needed restoration and reforestation work can continue in forests burned during the 2000 wildfire season.

"The key thing is to be on track for this year's work," Powell said, "and we are. We will accomplish the restoration and reforestation work we intended to accomplish this year."

The remaining $25 million - the money not reimbursed by Congress - was earmarked for what Powell called "out-year work," the planting and restoration projects planned for future years. "We will continue to build support for those projects and to analyze the needs," he said.

"Our intent is to accomplish those fire restoration projects," Powell said. "It's high-priority work for us. This year, we are on track to get the work done that we had scheduled. There are some challenges in the future, but we'll work on that in the months to come."

When the U.S. Forest Service depleted its wildland firefighting budget early last summer, agency officials "borrowed" almost $1 billion from other projects to pay the bills. By the end of June, most national forests were in an "essential-services-only mode."

Historically, Congress reimbursed the agency for its wildland firefighting costs - often with midyear emergency appropriations. Last year, the politicians balked, and returned just $636 million of the $919 million "borrowed" from national forests and grasslands nationwide - and none of the money made it back to the forests until this month.

In the Northern Region forests of Montana and northern Idaho, the fire borrowing took away money intended not only for post-fire rehabilitation, but also for research into the causes, behavior and effects of wildfires.

Powell said he allocated the

$15 million reimbursement "according to priority of work and ability to get the job done."

Nearly half of the money -

$7.2 million - will go to the Bitterroot National Forest, where work continues to rehabilitate 300,000 acres burned by wildfires during the summer of 2000. The Bitterroot lost $25 million when the call went out for emergency firefighting funds, all of it money intended for restoration and replanting in burned areas.

"So we got about one-third of the money back," said forest spokeswoman Ellen Davis. "But it's good news for us. Restoration and rehabilitation is a long-term proposition, and funding is always year-to-year. So we remain committed to doing all the needed work."

The $7.2 million will buy a lot, Davis said, including:

58 miles of road restoration.

Replacement of 19 culverts needed to eliminate migration barriers for native trout.

Collection of 100 bushels of pine cones to provide seeds for future replantings.

Monitoring of 8,000 acres for bug infestations and to gauge the success of planting projects.

2,000 acres of tree planting.

3,500 acres of netting - where thin covers will be placed over seedlings to shoo away bud-nipping deer.

Start of weed control efforts in burned areas.

Work to advertise and award contracts for the projects will begin immediately, Davis said. The road rehabilitation will be a priority. Twenty-five miles will be rehabilitated to reduce the amount of sediment eroded off road beds, culverts will be replaced and roads and ditches will be recontoured to improve drainage. Thirty-three miles will be "decommissioned," or removed.

"We have enough money for this year to make a real good stab at getting a lot of restoration done," Davis said. "We're going to work real hard at it."

But everyone will be keeping an eye on the coming wildfire season and the possibility that firefighting funds could again run short, Powell conceded. "Every fire season is different, but there is some probability that if we have a large fire season in the West that we'll have to transfer some funds again. Our hope and our intent is that we won't have as bad a fire season as last year. But that's not something we can really control."

Congress increased the Forest Service's firefighting budget for fiscal 2003, but only to about $440 million. Last summer's wildfires cost the agency $1.2 billion.


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