Friday, March 19, 2004

Healthy Forests Act unlikely to get full U.S. funding

The Interior Department will not support a Senate budget plan to fully fund the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, a law passed last year to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires, a spokesman said Thursday.

The House Budget Committee this week passed a resolution authorizing $2.4 trillion in federal spending next year. But the measure did not contain a similar forestry provision, likely setting up a showdown in conference with the Senate.

The Senate plan, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would carve out an additional $343 million to pay for hazardous-fuel reduction and other projects authorized by the forests law, which passed late last year.

President Bush's proposed budget for 2005 meets the $760 million spending level set by the law, but draws all except $80 million of that amount from existing programs administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department.

John Wright, a spokesman for the department, said the administration would not support Wyden's plan because it could not find enough qualified contractors to justify more spending.

Mark Rey, agriculture undersecretary, did not take a position on the Senate plan, but he agreed that the Forest Service could not ramp up its fuels-reduction work in time to use the additional money.

"I don't believe we could spend that much money in one fiscal year," Rey said....

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