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

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 rangelands 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 the Healthy Forests Initiative nationally.

Background: 2004 Poised to be a Challenging Year

  • An estimated 190 million acres of public lands are at elevated risk of severe wildfires. In 2000 and 2002, the United States suffered two of the worst wildland fire seasons in 50 years.
  • Nationally, we expect an above average fire season in several Western states and average or below average activity in the Eastern two-thirds of the nation.
  • As of June 1, some 530,000 acres had burned, an increase of 125,000 acres from 2003 by this time last year, but below the ten-year average of 775,000 acres.
  • Six fire-related firefighter fatalities have occurred in 2004 and more than 250 residences have been destroyed.
  • The 2002 fire season saw 88,458 fires burn roughly 7 million acres, destroy more than 800 structures, and take the lives of 23 firefighters. New Mexico, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona registered their worst fires in modern history.
  • In 2003, Southern California suffered its worst wildland fire season in modern history as wildfires burned over 739,000 acres destroying 3,600 homes claiming 24 civilian lives and costing $157 million to contain. The total economic loses are estimated at $123 million.
  • The combination of continuing drought and an increase of drought stressed and insect damaged trees and brush has resulted in a greater potential for large wildfires in the West.
  • Today, we have 35 percent more firefighting resources than we had in 2000.

Healthy Forest Initiative

We are making a difference, treating some 10 million acres under the National Fire Plan since the beginning of fiscal year 2001. We see results in association with large fires, more modest blazes, and fires that made almost no impact.

On May 11, 2004 a lightning-caused wind driven wildfire that threatened the town Ortonville, Minnesota was halted at less than 350 acres because a fuels treatment on 35 acres of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge the week before provided an anchor point for fire fighters and stopped the spread of the fire onto private lands with homes and farms.

Healthy Forests Initiative Administrative Improvements at Work

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 HFI, including:

USDA Forest Service and DOI are implementing new procedures provided for by the National Environmental Policy Act to expedite completion of collaboratively chosen priority fuels treatments on thousands of acres in the coming years. The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have used the Categorical Exclusion 306 times. This has resulted in 540 planned individual fuel treatments.

  • Improvement of Forest Service’s administrative review process to encourage early and more meaningful public participation to project planning and implementation of forest health projects.
  • Guidance to Federal agencies to make consultations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) more timely and better account for long-term benefits to threatened and endangered species.
  • Guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality to improve environmental assessments (EAs) for priority forest health projects. The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have implemented this guidance by preparing EAs for 15 pilot fuels treatment project. Thus far, the agencies have completed EAs using the enhanced process on the 14 pilot projects and have moved forward with the new EAs for other projects as well.
  • New regulations under ESA have improved the planning, review and implementation of fuels reduction and forest health activities.

Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003

On December 3, 2003, President Bush signed the historic and bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act into law. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act is the central legislative component of the Healthy Forests Initiative. The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have responded swiftly and aggressively to implement this legislation. The Forest Service has issued a final rule for a special administrative review process for hazardous fuels reduction projects in national forests. The Forest Service and Department of the Interior agencies have also published an HFRA implementation guide and conducted training sessions for the field on the use of the HFRA authorities.

Other accomplishments include:

  • The Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, and Energy have signed a memorandum of understanding that provides the basis for the interagency biomass team to implement biomass projects.
  • The Forest Service is working with state foresters and Tribes to develop guidelines that promote the use of forestry practices to sustain healthy watersheds through collaborative approaches. Guidelines will be in place by early fall.
  • Implementing 2 landscape scale research projects across the country that will provide practical information on how to combat insect infestations and diseases threatening forest health.
  • Developed and published the "The Early Warning System for Forest Health Threats in the United States," which describes for the first time the nation's system for identifying and responding to forest health threats, including web sites to obtain further information.

Funding the Healthy Forests Initiative

The Departments have developed an integrated interagency approach to fund activities that meet the objectives of the Healthy Forests Initiative, including those activities under the HFRA. In the proposed fiscal year 2005 proposed budget, a total of $760 million is targeted for work to reduce hazardous fuels, restore forest and rangeland health, and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

This budget supports the Healthy Forests Initiative and Title I in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, focusing on forest and rangeland health restoration to achieve more comprehensive and effective results on the ground.

Stewardship Contracting Legislation

  • In December 2002, Congress enacted legislation expanding Stewardship Contracting authority, a key component of the HFI. The legislation allows the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management 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.
  • The new authority allows contractors, community groups, and others to keep removed wood material as partial payment for their service, while improving environmental conditions and complying fully with applicable environmental regulations.
  • Long-term contracts foster a public/private partnership to restore forest and rangeland health by giving contractors the incentive to invest in equipment and facilities needed to productively use material from forest thinning to make useful wood products or to produce biomass energy, all at a savings to taxpayers.
  • The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have approved Stewardship Contracting Projects using the new authority requested by the President and provided by Congress. In 2003, the Forest Service awarded more than 30 Stewardship Contracting Projects and expects to award an additional 60 in 2004. Of the projects already approved, more than 20 are to improve fuels situations. BLM expects to carry out 35 Stewardship Contracting Projects's in 2004, 22 of which are hazardous fuel projects.
  • On January 9, 2004, the USDA and DOI announced guidelines to develop and implement Stewardship Contracting Projects's and agreements so there is consistency in contracting services across agencies.

Improved Coordination

In 2002, USDA and DOI formed the Interagency Wildland Fire Leadership Council to further implement the National Fire Plan. The council provides a coordinated, seamless management structure to all aspects of wildland fire policy under the Healthy Forests Initiative and integrates federal fire activities with those of states, tribes and local governments, including land restoration and rehabilitation.

Record Amounts of Hazardous Fuels Restoration Work Accomplished

  • From 2001-2003, Federal land management agencies treated a total of 7 million acres. In fiscal year 2004, the agencies plan to treat an additional 3.7 million acres, bringing the combined total since 2001 to nearly 11 million acres. Nationwide, the number of acres treated has tripled since 2000.
  • By the first week of June 2004 the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior reduced hazardous fuels almost 2.3 million acres.
  • Approximately $426 million of hazardous fuels reduction funds has been budgeted for work this year between USDA and DOI and will be supplemented with funding from other program areas. In fiscal year 2000, DOI and USDA spent $117 million for hazardous fuels reduction.