Kerry offers forest-health plan; GOP issues critique

Democrats say they’ll right Bush wrongs; critics say Kerry didn’t read law

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The Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees-apparent have issued their forest health plan – and the campaign of the GOP incumbents have issued a point-by-point critique. Here are both announcements, in full:

PORTLAND – John Kerry and John Edwards have released their plan to keep communities in Oregon safe from forest fires. The Kerry/Edwards Forest Management Plan details a commitment to provide firefighters with the necessary resources and equipment to attack wildfires immediately and save lives and property. The campaign also announced that John Kerry will transfer $100 million from government subsidies to the timber industry and invest it in a new Forest Restoration Corps (FRC) to create jobs and invest in the long-term health of our forests.

“Forest management should focus on reducing fire risk in common-sense ways,” said John Kerry in a statement. “As such, it is critical that firefighters have the necessary resources -including modern, safe, and reliable air tankers -to fight wildfires and protect communities. Under George W. Bush, Oregon’s firefighters are asked to battle fires without the equipment they need. This is wrong and it will change under my administration.”

“There’s a lot in this plan for people concerned about preventing catastrophic wildfire, providing robust firefighting resources and creating jobs,” said Congressman Peter DeFazio. “The Kerry-Edwards forest management plan does what the President has failed to do, it provides the funding to thin forests and protect communities from the threat of wildfire; it fully funds firefighting and invests in a reliable and modern tanker fleet; and most importantly it has the potential to create thousands of jobs in rural communities. Instead of the cheap talk that we get from the White House, this plan is an honest collaborative approach to fuel reduction and protecting communities.”

Following is the Kerry-Edwards Fire Management Plan:

KERRY-EDWARDS’ FOREST PLAN: PUTTING COMMUNITIES FIRST

John Kerry and John Edwards recognize that forest management can benefit our nation’s economy while protecting our natural resources. They are committed to preserving and maintaining healthy forests that generate good jobs and support productive communities. John Kerry and John Edwards realize that forest products play an important role in our economy – especially in America’s suffering rural communities – and they support logging and fuel reduction activities required to sustain the timber industry and protect communities from devastating forest fires.

Although the Healthy Forests Restoration Act undertakes important forest management activities, it shunts too much fire protection funding away from forest communities and eliminates critical avenues for public participation. In this time of escalating budget deficits, it is essential to direct every dollar where it can make the most impact in protecting lives, communities, and property. The Kerry-Edwards administration will reorient HFRA to prioritize communities at risk and will pursue additional opportunities such as the Forest Legacy program to invest in forest and rural communities. The Kerry-Edwards administration will practice responsible, science-driven forest management that invests in job creation and protects homes and businesses.

John Kerry has been endorsed by 48 Nobel Prize winning scientists and is committed to restoring the role of science in forest management decisions.

Unlike George Bush – who appointed a timber lobbyist to the top job in the Forest Service – John Kerry and John Edwards are committed to balanced forest policies that apply empirical science based on facts, not ideology.

1) John Kerry and John Edwards will prioritize fire prevention in at-risk communities

Increased funding for at-risk communities
The Healthy Forests Restoration Act devotes only half of its fuel reduction dollars to protecting at-risk communities; the other fifty percent is spent on remote projects miles from communities. A Kerry-Edwards administration will ensure that a higher percentage of fuel reduction projects are carried out in areas where human life and property are at risk. The Kerry-Edwards administration will increase spending for communities to a minimum of 70% and will commit to full funding for an improved Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which reflects the principles and proposals of the Kerry-Edwards forest plan.

Public participation
Meaningful public participation is required to provide citizens with a voice in the decision-making processes that impact their communities. The Kerry-Edwards administration will ensure that the National Environmental Policy Act protections are applied in a timely manner for projects with significant community or environmental impacts. The Kerry-Edwards administration will invite communities to provide input on proposed federal decisions and will ensure the fundamental right of citizen access to the courts.

Collaboration with affected communities and states
Under the Kerry-Edwards administration, communities and states will be full partners in assuring community protection and forest restoration. John Kerry and John Edwards will provide affected states with a real voice in forest management decisions by collaborating with Governors and Congressional representatives to establish statewide Forest Health Councils. These Councils will be comprised of community leaders, tribal representatives, scientists, environmentalists, sportsmen, and state and local officials. Federal officials will be required to actively engage with these Forest Health Councils to identify funding priorities for fuel reduction and restoration projects in each state.

Community fire management plans
HFRA offers communities the opportunity to develop fire management plans, but it does not provide them with the required tools and funding. John Kerry and John Edwards will commit funding to engage community forestry groups and other community members in the planning processes that ensure their safety.

Community fire prevention and education
John Kerry and John Edwards will promote education programs in communities to enable them to minimize their exposure to fire damage. The Kerry-Edwards administration will create cost-sharing and tax incentive mechanisms that encourage families to participate in the Firewise program, which provides resources and support to homeowners who engage in fire prevention activities.

2) John Kerry and John Edwards will create jobs in restoration and fire prevention

Forest Restoration Corps
John Kerry and John Edwards will transfer $100 million from government subsidies to the timber industry and invest it in a new Forest Restoration Corps (FRC). The FRC will create jobs and invest in the long-term health of our forests – and the communities that depend upon them – by restoring forests, streams and rangelands that have been hard hit by fire or that have suffered from long-term mismanagement. By restoring these resources, community water supplies will be protected, hazardous mudslides will be avoided, and our forest resources will be preserved.

Support for firefighters
John Kerry and John Edwards will give our firefighters the budgets and tools they need to effectively fight wildfires, including modern, safe, and reliable tankers. The Kerry-Edwards administration will ensure that the budgeting process recognizes the full cost of firefighting to guarantee that our professional firefighters do not face a funding crisis each year. The Kerry-Edwards administration will practice long-term planning and procurement and will avoid sudden disruptions in federal air support for fire suppression.

Jobs in sustainable forest products
Since most fuels reduction projects generate small diameter trees as a by-product, the Kerry-Edwards administration will promote the development of markets in small diameter trees. The administration will support these and other sustainable businesses by offering low interest loans and cost-sharing partnerships that local create economic opportunities in forest products and biomass energy production.

Support for small businesses that enable fire prevention
By supporting businesses that fireproof and retrofit homes, the Kerry-Edwards administration will provide communities with additional resources to prevent fire damage. The Kerry-Edwards administration will provide grants to small businesses that perform hazardous fuel treatments in small, economically disadvantaged communities.

3) John Kerry and John Edwards will protect our nation’s remaining wild forests and support broad conservation efforts

George Bush has taken advantage of public support for “healthy forests” to enable timber companies to log in remote and pristine areas of our public lands. This betrayal of the public trust will not take place on John Kerry’s watch. The Kerry-Edwards administration will ensure that special, remote areas of our National Forests that include old growth and other unique resources are protected and off-limits to logging.

John Kerry and John Edwards will also support efforts such as the Forest Legacy program, which encourage private landowners to conserve forest resources. The Kerry-Edwards administration will support balanced forest management proposals that reflect strong science and consensus-based decision making, modeled on the fire plan developed by the Western Governors Association.

BC ’04 Policy Memo: Critique of Kerry’s Forest Plan

MEMORANDUM
FROM: BC’04 POLICY DEPARTMENT

Introduction

On October 30, 2003, as fires raged through California forests, the Senate voted 80 to 14 for the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA). John Kerry missed the vote; so did John Edwards. Later, Kerry decried the bill supported by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) as “Orwellian” and condemned it for “putting a chainsaw to public lands.” Recently, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Kerry changed his tune, saying he “liked a lot of the parts” of the bill.

Today, Kerry released his “plan” to address the catastrophic wild fires that have destroyed entire communities and ecosystems in the West. It shows that Kerry didn’t read the legislation or consult with his Democratic colleagues who helped write it. In short, the “plan” is embarrassing, for it claims the moral high ground on proposals already contemplated in HFRA; promotes ideas originated and implemented several years ago; and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of federal forest policy.

I. Fuels Reduction

The Kerry-Edwards plan “will ensure that a higher percentage of fuel reduction projects are carried out in areas where human life and property are at risk.” Further, “the Kerry-Edwards administration will increase spending for communities to a minimum of 70% and will commit to full funding for an improved Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA), which reflects the principles and proposals of the Kerry-Edwards forest plan.”

Analysis

HFRA mandates that at least 50 percent of funds are used in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). The Forest Service easily exceeded the funding requirement last year with 77% of total acres treated being in the WUI. Additionally, 66% of acres to be treated in 2004 are in the WUI.

HFRA also codifies the bipartisan Western Governors Association’s prioritization plan. The WGA plan places express priority on the reduction of hazardous conditions near communities in the Wildland Urban Interface and near sources of municipal water. This strategy was endorsed by the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups.

Simply reading through HFRA would reveal this: “In accordance with the Implementation Plan, the Secretary shall develop an annual program of work for Federal land that gives priority to authorized hazardous fuel reduction projects that provide for the protection of at-risk communities or watersheds or that implement community wildfire protection plans.”

Moreover, HFRA reflects a carefully calibrated balance between priority fuel reduction near homes and communities and long-term forest health. Kerry’s proposal upsets this balance and ignores problems in forests far removed from communities, where water supplies, streams, rivers, soils, and thousands of acres of endangered and threatened species habitat (100,000 for the spotted owl in the 2002 Biscuit Fire) are at risk.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Fuel treatments carried out over large landscapes can reduce both the size and severity of wildfires and their effects on communities and the environment. Treating just a few stands in large contiguous forested landscapes will do little to modify fire behavior over the entire area. Protecting large landscapes requires land managers to develop large-scale fuel treatment patterns that reduce the potential for catastrophic fire and promote healthy forest conditions.” (USDA, “Influence of Forest Structure on Wildfire Behavior and the Severity of its Effects,” 2003)

Moreover, Kerry’s proposal neglects the serious threat to communities posed by fires hundreds of miles away. As Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen, professor of restoration forestry at Texas A&M University, explained, “Even then, a catastrophic fire, roaring through hundreds of square miles of unthinned, overgrown forest is no respecter of narrow fuelbreaks. Fires often jump over railroad tracks and even divided highways. Furthermore, firebrands-burning debris-launched up to a mile in advance of the edge of a wildfire, will destroy homes and communities no matter how much cleared space surrounds them.” (Testimony before the House Resources Committee, 8/25/03)

II. Public Participation

Part A

Kerry says that his plan will require “meaningful public participation” and ensure the “fundamental right” of citizen access to the courts. Kerry also “will ensure that the National Environmental Policy Act protections are applied in a timely manner for projects with significant community or environmental impacts.” And further that, “the Kerry-Edwards administration will invite communities to provide input on proposed federal decisions and will ensure the fundamental right of citizen access to the courts.”

Analysis

According to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), HFRA provides for robust public participation: “So I come tonight to say with respect to this key issue, this key question of public participation, not one current opportunity for public involvement would be lost under this compromise. I say that again. Not one current opportunity for public comment would be lost under this proposal.” (Senate debate, Healthy Forests Restoration Act, 10/29/03)

HFRA also codifies the bipartisan Western Governors Association public input and participation requirements, ensuring that interested persons have numerous opportunities to engage decision makers during all phases of fuels reduction projects.

With respect to National Environmental Policy Act protections, Kerry’s proposal offers no substantive differences from HFRA. A central purpose behind HFRA was to limit the seemingly endless environmental analysis required under NEPA for fuels reduction projects, in many cases taking years to complete, even in the face of impending fires. HFRA expedites the approval process by making it more collaborative and less confrontational, while ensuring that all of the environmental impacts of a project have been vetted by the public.

Additionally, HFRA would still require Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements consistent with NEPA.

Finally, citizens enjoy full access to the courts under HFRA. The bill, however, prevents protracted court delays that obstruct timely fuels reduction projects. Under the bill, preliminary injunctions by a federal court against a project must be reevaluated every 45 days. In cases seeking a preliminary injunction beyond 45 days, the Forest Service must inform the court of the conditions of the forest lands at issue, including whether disease, bug infestation, or wildfire risks have grown since the temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction was granted. The court could order unlimited preliminary injunctions at the end of each 45-day interval.

Part B

Under Kerry’s plan, states will be full partners in “assuring community protection and forest restoration,” and he will provide affected states with “a real voice” in forest management decisions.” Kerry will achieve this by “collaborating with Governors and Congressional representatives to establish statewide Forest Health Councils. These Councils will be comprised of community leaders, tribal representatives, scientists, environmentalists, sportsmen, and state and local officials. Federal officials will be required to actively engage with these Forest Health Councils to identify funding priorities for fuel reduction and restoration projects in each state.”

Analysis

HFRA and other existing projects already do this, which make “Forest Health Councils” redundant and counterproductive. First, states and communities already are full partners under HFRA. For example, under the bill, and as John Kerry acknowledges below, HFRA empowers states and communities to develop wildfire protection plans, a central component in wildfire prevention.

Additionally, in order to encourage full public participation when formulating fuels reduction projects, the Secretary of Agriculture, as stated in HFRA, is required to “facilitate collaboration among State and local governments and Indian tribes, and participation of interested persons, during the preparation of each authorized fuel reduction project in a manner consistent with the Implementation Plan.”

Prior to passage of HFRA, the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, the Director of the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Governors of Montana, Arizona, Oregon, and Idaho met in May 2002 to approve an implementation plan for the 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy, called “A Collaborative Approach for Reducing Wildland Fire Risks to Communities and Environment.”

The strategy, which was endorsed by the Western Governors Association, called for a collaborative, performance-based framework encouraging local agency managers to work with states, tribes, local governments and citizens in addressing the threat of wildland fires.

Also, in 2003, DOI and USDA formed the Interagency Wildland Fire Leadership Council to continue implementing the National Fire Plan and to combat wildland fires more effectively. The council integrates federal fire activities with those of states, tribes and local governments, including land restoration and rehabilitation.

Part C

Kerry acknowledges that “HFRA offers communities the opportunity to develop fire management plans,” but, in his view “it does not provide them with the required tools and funding.” “John Kerry and John Edwards will commit funding to engage community forestry groups and other community members in the planning processes that ensure their safety.”

Analysis

How much funding will they propose? HRFA authorized funding for the development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans; states prioritize this funding while working with the Forest Service and other agencies. Federal funding for these plans is also provided by the Secure Rural Schools and County Self-Determination Act of 2000.

Part D

Kerry will “promote education programs in communities to enable them to minimize their exposure to fire damage.” A Kerry-Edwards administration “will create cost-sharing and tax incentive mechanisms that encourage families to participate in the Firewise program, which provides resources and support to homeowners who engage in fire prevention activities.”

Analysis

How much will the cost-sharing and tax incentives cost? How would they work?

III. Timber Subsidies

Kerry favors transferring “$100 million from government subsidies to the timber industry and invest it in a new Forest Restoration Corps (FRC).” According to the Kerry plan, “The FRC will create jobs and invest in the long-term health of our forests – and the communities that depend upon them – by restoring forests, streams and rangelands that have been hard hit by fire or that have suffered from long-term mismanagement. By restoring these resources, community water supplies will be protected, hazardous mudslides will be avoided, and our forest resources will be preserved.”

Analysis

First, Kerry is injecting more redundancies into his plan. The “Forest Restoration Corps” would do work already performed by highly-trained forest workers. Second, the “timber subsidy” referred to above is no subsidy at all, but part of the Forest Service’s timber management program. This is the primary tool used by the agency to control the excess growth on our national forests-growth that is feeding our fire problem.

According to the latest National Forest annual growth statistics, the amount of timber harvested is less than 20 percent of the timber dying each year on our national forests and less than 10 percent of total growth. (Net Growth: 19.970 billion board feet; Net Mortality: 9.675 bbf; Net Harvest: 1.830 bbf) These are dramatic and unsustainable levels of growth and mortality and the obvious (except to John Kerry) contributing factor to the increasing numbers and severity of wildfires.

IV. Market for “Small Diameter Trees”

Kerry’s plan “will promote the development of markets in small diameter trees,” and “support these and other sustainable businesses by offering low interest loans and cost-sharing partnerships that local create economic opportunities in forest products and biomass energy production.”

Analysis

This was already addressed three years ago under the 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy, mentioned above. The strategy called for employing “all appropriate means to stimulate industries that will utilize small-diameter, woody material resulting from hazardous fuel reduction activities, such as for biomass electric power, pulp and paper-making, and composite structural building materials.”

Moreover, under the leadership of President Bush, Congress passed stewardship contracting legislation in 2002. The bill expands 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. It also 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.

Finally, provisions promoting the use of biomass are currently in the energy bill, which Kerry opposes.

V. Budget Issues

Kerry claims he will provide “our firefighters the budgets and tools they need to effectively fight wildfires, including modern, safe, and reliable tankers.” And further that he “will ensure that the budgeting process recognizes the full cost of firefighting to guarantee that our professional firefighters do not face a funding crisis each year.”

Analysis

In his FY 2005 budget, President Bush requested $907 million for fire suppression, which is above the 10-year average. Kerry is mistaken in the belief that funding requests will always meet firefighting needs, because the extent and severity of fires cannot be predicted with full certainty. Therefore budgeting for fire suppression is a speculative exercise, relying as it does on complex computer modeling and statistical analysis to predict what fire seasons will look like. Budget requests for fire suppression inevitably are supported by emergency supplemental appropriations, which the Bush Administration has provided over the last 3 years.

On the issue of tankers: the Forest Service and the Department of Interior announced recently that they will acquire more than 100 additional aircraft for this year’s fire season. These aircraft will enable fire managers to stop nearly 99 percent of all fires on initial attack and continue to protect communities.

Federal agencies will contract with private companies for up to 36 single engine airtankers (SEATS), 26 Type 1 (heavy) helicopters, 45 Type II (medium) helicopters and two CL 215 airtankers. In addition, eight U.S. military C-130 aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System are available.

These newly contracted planes and military planes will be part of the existing fleet of more than 700 firefighting aircraft that drop fire suppressants.

VI. Old Growth Forests

Further demonstrating his ignorance of HFRA, Kerry says that “the Kerry-Edwards administration will ensure that special, remote areas of our National Forests that include old growth and other unique resources are protected and off-limits to logging.”

Analysis

HFRA includes specific language protecting logging of old growth and large fire-resistant trees. As Sen. Diane Feinstein said, “The legislation also requires that large fire-resistant old-growth trees be protected from logging immediately. Most people do not know that.” (Senate debate, Healthy Forests Restoration Act, 10/30/03)

Specifically, section 102 (e) 2 on old growth reads: “In carrying out a covered project, the Secretary shall fully maintain, or contribute toward the restoration of, the structure and composition of old growth stands according to the pre-fire suppression old growth conditions characteristic of the forest type, taking into account the contribution of the stand to landscape fire adaptation and watershed health, and retaining the large trees contributing to old growth structure.”

The same is true for large trees: “the Secretary shall carry out a covered project in a manner that focuses largely on small diameter trees, thinning, strategic fuel breaks, and prescribed fire to modify fire behavior, as measured by the projected reduction of uncharacteristically severe wildfire effects for the forest type (such as adverse soil impacts, tree mortality or other impacts); and maximizes the retention of large trees, as appropriate for the forest type, to the extent that the trees promote fire-resilient stands.”

Conclusion

The Kerry-Edwards plan amounts to little more than an excuse for missing a critical vote on an overwhelmingly popular piece of legislation and having nothing to show for it for months. Instead, Kerry and Edwards, if they want to promote forest health and protect communities from catastrophic fires, should support the Forest Service, the Department of Interior, states, tribes, and local communities as they implement bipartisan legislation signed by President Bush eight months ago.