Reforestation Funds Pay For Firefighting Forest Service Behind On Replanting And Is Years Behind On Restoring Coffers

The Forest Service has been gutting its tree-planting fund to pay firefighting bills, and is years behind in restoring the money, a new audit shows.

Wildfires in the West this season may require diversion of even more money, a top Agriculture Department official warned the White House last month in one of a series of letters obtained by The Associated Press.

“This would seriously impair our ability to carry out the program of reforestation,” Deputy Secretary Richard Rominger wrote June 13 to T.J. Glauthier, associate director of natural resources at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

By 1993, the most recent year for which data are available, the Pacific Northwest region had the greatest outstanding reforestation needs at 260,136 acres, followed by the Rocky Mountain region, 103,328 acres; Intermountain, 93,112 acres, and South, 77,966 acres. The national total is near 1 million acres.

The unplanted acreage in the Pacific Northwest region is located primarily on national forests east of the Cascades. The Colville National Forest, which is part of that region, had 10,000 acres harvested but not replanted as of 1993, said Sandy Berger, a spokesman for the regional Forest Service office in Portland.

But that figure may not indicate anything unusual, because there normally is as much as a three-year lag between harvest and replanting, Berger said.

The Northern Region, which includes the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, says it is up-to-date on all of its replantings.

Forest Service officials could not say whether their timber inventories correctly reflect areas where trees have not been replanted because of the funding problems.

In any case, without the firefighting diversions, the tree-planting fund would have a balance of about $758 million. But it showed a balance of just $338 million at the start of fiscal 1996 last fall - depleted by $420 million in transfers to firefighting from 1990 through 1995, the General Accounting Office audit says.

The Forest Service estimates about $942 million will be needed through the end of the decade for planting, seeding, weeding and other reforestation activities at logged-over sites and forests hit by natural disasters.

Historically, money borrowed from the reforestation fund had been replaced within two years, said the audit by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

“But now it has been more than five years since the 1990 transfer and the 1992 transfer is going on five years,” said Linda L. Harmon, GAO’s assistant director of energy, resources and science.

The Forest Service should either restore the $420 million to the reforestation fund or scale back tree-planting plans on national forests, said the audit conducted at the request of Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., and released last week.

As things now stand, “Sufficient funds will not be available to pay for all of the planned projects,” the audit said. But regional and district Forest Service offices “continue to operate and plan for future reforestation projects as if the transfers had not occurred.”

The GAO faults the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, for waiting until March of this year to ask OMB for money to replenish the tree-planting fund.

The White House agency has not made a decision on that request, an Agriculture Department spokesman said last week.

An OMB spokesman said he could find no evidence the formal request had even been received. Glauthier could not be reached immediately for comment.

In a March 17 letter to Glauthier at OMB, Rominger said it was “critical” that $371 million be returned to the reforestation account.

“Some hard choices will have to be made, but I firmly believe that the present system is fraught with unacceptable risks,” he wrote.

The Forest Service traditionally asks Congress for less money than it needs to fight forest fires, agency Chief Jack Ward Thomas acknowledged in April, when he testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

The agency has spent nearly $300 million in each of the last three years for fire suppression in national forests, but so far has requested less than $90 million for fiscal 1997, which starts Oct. 1, he said.

The biggest annual bill for federal firefighting so far was logged in 1994, when it cost $678 million to battle wildfires, mostly in the West.

The reforestation account, known as the Knutson-Vandenberg trust fund, is made up of a percentage of logging receipts, which usually generates about $200 million a year. From 1990 through 1994, the Forest Service spent between $100 million and $200 million a year, reforesting an annual average of about 472,000 acres.

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Ken Olsen contributed to this report.

Cut in the Spokane edition

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Ken Olsen contributed to this report.

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