May 07, 2004

Wyden calls for full wildfire prevention funding for Healthy Forests Restoration Act

Wyden amended the budget in March to fully fund the law, but Budget conference committee may now be poised to cut $343 million

Washington, D.C. Speaking from the floor of the U.S. Senate today, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden called on the House-Senate Budget conference committee to fully fund hazardous fuels reduction projects under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA). Wyden successfully spearheaded a $343 million budget amendment in March to fully fund the law, but rumors circulating on Capitol Hill suggest that the Budget conference committee plans to eliminate this funding, even though it received unanimous approval in the Senate.With an above-average fire risk in parts of Oregon this year and fires already scorching parts of the West, now is not the time to scrimp on the wildfire prevention budget, Wyden said. Its disturbing that there is even talk of cutting funding for wildfire prevention.Wydens amendment increased the Budget Authority for hazardous fuels projects and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act by $343 million to reach the $760 million authorization of Title I in HFRA. Prior to Wydens amendment, the Administrations proposed budget slashed funds from other vital Forest Service programs and moved those dollar amounts into HFRA without providing real new funds for the law.# # #NOTE: The complete text of Wydens prepared remarks follows:Floor Statement on funding the Healthy Forests Restoration Act Budget AmendmentMay 7, 2004M. President, I come to the floor today to comment on some distressing news I have heard. It appears that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act Budget Amendment, which I offered with Senators Johnson, Feinstein, Daschle, Bingaman, and Dorgan, and which the Senate accepted UNANIMOUSLY by voice vote, will NOT make it out of the conference with the House of Representatives.Let me review for you what Senate Amendment 2717 would do. This amendment increased the budget authority to boost investments in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act to benefit national forests, the environment, local communities and local economies. The amendment would add $343 million to last years $417 million enacted level for hazardous fuels reduction to reach the $760 million authorization in Title I of Healthy Forests. The amendment had an offset: a very small across the board cut in Function 920 of administrative costs. Let me note that a virtually identical amendment, which I also sponsored, was adopted in last years Budget Resolution and was also kicked out in that Conference.Now, my colleagues may get tired of me coming to the floor to talk about the need to adequately fund hazardous fuels reduction projects - in the Budget, in Appropriations, in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act and anywhere else that asking for funding would be appropriate.But for every member of Congress who finds it onerous to deal with this subject year in and year out there are thousands, literally thousands, of people who have to deal with chores that are far worse. Every year that hazardous fuels projects go under funded or unfunded is a year that with little to no warning, thousands of people in fire-prone communities must toss everything they can fit into their cars and flee from their homes without knowing if anything will remain when they return. The Forest Services inability to do all the hazardous fuels reduction projects that need to get done leads to real-life danger on the ground, in peoples backyards, in their recreation areas, and in the places they gather as communities.Two years ago, in July, 2002, the AP reported that 17,000 people faced evacuation in Oregon. I want to read a bit of their report to you: Firefighters went door-to-door deciding which homes they could save [in Cave Junction, Oregon] as an explosive 68,000 acre wildfire nearby fed off heat, wind and timber. Those folks were evacuated, and a month later they were still evacuated, and another article from the Medford Mail Tribune noted the very personal nature of this disruption. It said the Josephine County Sheriffs office was beginning to reunite an estimated 400 evacuated animals including livestock and family pets with evacuated owners.The AP reported just yesterday that an early fire season is expected in Eastern Oregon.Also from the San Francisco Chronicle just yesterday: California's fire season, off to an ominously early start, could be exacerbated by increasing numbers of dead trees, frozen funding for fuel- reduction projects and the implacable expansion of the suburbs into wildlands. Federal officials moved Wednesday to address one of those concerns, freeing $240 million for removal of dead trees in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, after Sen. Dianne Feinstein complained about restrictions on the funds. Still, state and national officials say the trend in recent years of extremely destructive wildfires in California and throughout the West is likely to continue this season. From the CBS / Associated Press story entitled: Early Start For Calif. Fires dateline CORONA, Calif., May 5, 2004: As acrid smoke from more than 18,000 acres of charred brush curled skyward, California officials feared the earlier-than-usual start of the summer wildfires season could make it the most dangerous ever. Just months after the most devastating wildfires in state history , thousands of acres from San Diego to Santa Barbara are ablaze. Thousands of firefighters are on the line, and once again residents are fleeing advancing flames.From a story of the same day by the Associated Press Its like gasoline: More than 1,000 people were evacuated in the northeastern Lake Elsinore area as the Cerrito Fire was whipped up by winds. And from the Tuesday LA Daily News: It was the explosive end to the state's worst fire season, from which the region still hasn't recovered. And this year, authorities say, could be worse. Much, much worse. "It's been hot and dry early this year. ... We are gearing up for what could be a long, difficult season," state Fire Chief Jim Wright said last week upon declaring the opening of fire season in three Southern California counties three weeks earlier than usual.To those thousands of folks across the country, Congress bickering and delaying on fully funding forest projects isnt theoretical. It isnt a policy discussion. It is a danger to their families and affects how they live their lives each day.By working in a bipartisan manner after more than 25 years Congress passed a landmark piece of wildfire legislation, signed into law by the President on December 3, 2003, that will protect communities from catastrophic forest fires, preserve old growth forests, restore unhealthy forests, and protect public involvement. My Senate colleagues and I were able to get the U.S. Senate to pass a balanced compromise on healthy forests legislation that authorizes $760 million annually for hazardous fuels reduction projects AND get a Budget amendment that would have provided the funding room necessary for this land mark legislation.But without the help our budget amendment provides, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act may not begin to live up to the expectations or even the needs of folks in places like Cave Junction, Oregon or Corona, CA. The amendment on the Budget Resolution would have taken us a step closer to fulfilling those folks vision of this law and they deserve something approximating an adequate response from the Federal government, starting now.This body agreed that hazardous fuels reduction projects, the National Fire Plan, and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act should be given complete support. I was hopeful that the Budget Conferees would see the importance of keeping intact the unanimously accepted Senate position. Perhaps my faith in the process was misplaced, but its not important if Im disappointed again. What matters is that Oregonians faith and other Americans faith is being eroded. How can they possibly believe, after several years of this, that Congress really intends to save their homes and safeguard their lives? When they have to evacuate again this year and next year, families in fire-prone areas will know that despite some bi-partisan work on forest policy, political barriers continue to block the money needed for preventative hazardous fuels reduction forest treatments. That should shame us as much as it disappoints and disheartens them even more.M. President, I yield the floor.