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Progress Report on Implementing President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 in the South

December 2004

The President introduced his Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI) in August 2002 at the height of one of the worst fire seasons the Nation has experienced in decades. The Healthy Forests Initiative, the combination of administrative initiatives and legislative changes, provides land managers the tools they need to reduce wildland fire risks, control insects and disease, and restore forest health. On December 3, 2003, President Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act into law. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) is the central legislative component of the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

Decades of hazardous buildup of dense brush and undergrowth, coupled with drought conditions, insect infestation and disease make forests and rangelands in many areas throughout the country vulnerable to often intense and environmentally destructive fires. HFRA contains provisions for preparing and implementing hazardous fuels reduction projects on Federal land and for assisting the restoration of healthy forest and watershed conditions on State, private and tribal lands. The following is a brief progress report on conditions and actions taken to implement HFRA and HFI in the Southern States.

Background: Fire, Insects, and Diseases Threaten Southern Forests

Wildland fires, insects, diseases, and invasive plants are wide-spread in the southern forests degrading native plant diversity, wildlife habitats, and overall forest health. Examples include:

  • By June 1st, more than 32,000 wildland fires have burned more than 531,000 acres, with more than half of the fires and acreage occurring in the South.
  • It is estimated that 57 million acres across all land ownerships in the South are at risk to southern pine beetle infestations.
  • From 1999 to the present, the southern pine beetle outbreak has caused standing timber value losses of over $1.5 billion on almost 1 million acres or the equivalent to the lumber needed to build approximately 187,000 single-family homes. In addition, tree mortality caused by bark beetle infestations creates a tinderbox, which predisposes these forests to catastrophic wildfires. In the past five years more than 1 million acres have been lost to Southern Pine Beetle.
  • Oak and red-oak borer decline in the interior highlands of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, which is in part caused by drought, poor growing conditions, and too many trees. Red-oak borer, which occurs primarily in the Ozark National Forest, is estimated to have impacted more than 340,000 acres with an estimated loss of $29 million in timber value alone.
  • The Slow the Spread program will treat 170,000 acres for gypsy moth in Fiscal Year 2004. In 2002, gypsy moths caused approximately $25 million dollars of timber loss in the south (state and private lands).

Healthy Forests Progress in the South

The Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 have provided some much need tools to address the wildland fire, disease, and insect problems in the South. Accomplishments to date in the Southern Region include:

  • Developing regional criteria and a strategy to prioritize and integrate all vegetation management treatments, not just hazardous fuels.
  • Approval in Fiscal Year 2004 of the initial 5,000 acres of a 60,000 acre stewardship project on the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest to improve wildlife habitat, forest health, and reduce the risk of fire to surrounding communities. Partners participating in this project include the National Wild Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Quail Unlimited, the Audubon Society, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Caddo Nation of Oklahoma to name a few. In addition, the Southern Region expects to award at least another 10 new Stewardship Contracting Projects in Fiscal Year 2004 that will treat another 15,000 acres.
  • Improving forest health and safety by thinning trees and removing hazard trees along roadways, and in public use areas on the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests. This year (FY04) we used prescribed fire on about 12,000 acres for fuel reduction and restoration of severely impacted lands. Both Forests are using the new categorical exclusions (CEs) to plan mechanical and prescribed fire use on the impacted lands for fiscal year 2005 - there are roughly 20,000 acres covered with thinning and fuel reduction CEs. Most of the hazard abatement for roadsides, trails and recreation areas are covered under previously existing CE authorities for maintenance.
  • Developing a biomass utilization program to address the need for markets to process small diameter timber.
  • Working with several southern universities and state forestry agencies to develop landscape scale silvicultural research assessments to address the southern pine beetle and red-oak borer.
  • Restoring 155,000 acres of red-cockaded woodpecker habitat by thinning trees, removing brush, and using prescribed fire.
  • Under President Bush’s leadership, the federal land management agencies have implemented several administrative initiatives to help expedite projects aimed to restore forest and rangeland health, as called for under the Healthy Forests Initiative. In the South, accomplishments include:
  • Implementing at least 30 high priority fuels reduction and forest restoration projects using the new procedures provided under the National Environmental Policy Act.
  • Planning projects in collaboration with State and Federal wildlife agencies, such as a 7,000 acre hazard fuel reduction and forest health restoration project in eastern Oklahoma.
  • Implementing the Guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality to improve environmental assessments (EAs) for priority forest health projects, including one project in Texas and another 1,000 acre forest health project in eastern Oklahoma.
  • Training in use of the endangered species counterpart regulations with the expectation that the streamlined process will be used in 2005 for nearly all of the approximately 1 million acres of fuels treatment in the Southern Region.
  • Record Amounts of Hazardous Fuels Restoration Work Accomplished (All acres treated under the National Fire Plan unless otherwise noted.)
    • Numbers show a steady increase nationally in acres treated for hazardous fuels restoration. In 2000, 1.25 million acres were treated and in 2003, 2.6 million acres were treated. In the Southern Region alone the Forest Service and DOI Bureaus plan to treat hazardous fuels on a record 1.3 million acres in fiscal year 2004.
    • Hazardous fuels will be reduced on nearly 950,000 acres using prescribed fire with the remainder being treated through mechanical means in 2004.
    • More than 700,000 acres of the fuels treatment in the Southern Region will occur in and around communities in 2004.
    • Hazardous fuels treatment on National Forest System lands budget for the South in 2000 was $14 million; it increased to $34 million in 2004, a 140 percent increase.