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Forest Chief Crossing His Fingers Asks Senate For Bare-Bones Fire Funding, Hopes For Best

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas acknowledged before a Senate panel Wednesday that his agency historically has asked Congress for dramatically less money than is needed to fight forest fires.

The Forest Service has spent nearly $300 million in each of the last three years on fire suppression at national forests, but is asking for less than $90 million for that purpose in the coming fiscal year.

“That’s really riding a high-wire act with no net underneath,” said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior.

Thomas agreed.

“If you think you are nervous, my palms are sweaty,” the chief replied during questioning.

“I don’t mean to be funny,” he continued. “We’re already $400 million in hock” to other agency funds where money is borrowed to cover the firefighting costs.

As has become typical over the years, the Forest Service most likely will return to Congress during the course of the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 to request emergency, supplemental funding to cover fire costs, he said.

“Today may not be the day, but some day we have to face up to the realities of fire control,” Thomas told the panel.

“It has never been dealt with responsibly. We just act like it won’t happen. I really should be the subject of a review. We simply have evolved into a situation where we have not been as up front as we should be,” he said.

Gorton said Congress shares the blame.

“That really has been true on both sides of the table,” the senator said.

Thomas and Agriculture Undersecretary James Lyons also testified Wednesday about logging levels anticipated on national forests in the coming year.

They confirmed harvests on federal lands in Oregon, Washington and northern California will at some point exceed the 1 billion-board-foot level in President Clinton’s Northwest forest plan to make up shortfalls in recent years.

Clinton’s plan was projected to produce an average of 1 billion board feet annually between 1992 and 2002. Thomas said it produced roughly 200 million, 400 million and 600 million board feet on national forests in the last three years in Oregon and Washington, and should approach 800 million board feet in fiscal year 1997.

Another 150 million board feet projected on Bureau of Land Management lands and additional harvests on California lands should push that total close to 1 billion, he said.

All national forests nationwide are expected to produce about 4.2 billion board feet of timber in fiscal 1997 - about 1.4 billion of that in the form of salvage timber.

National harvests exceeded 12 billion board feet annually during the peak harvest years of the 1980s before a series of federal court rulings found the logging in the Northwest to be in violation of U.S. environmental laws.


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