Over the past few months, Congress has again engaged in the debate aver wildfire threats an our federal forests and the need to protect communities and forest ecosystems from destructive wildfires. The debate has been framed by President Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative" (HFI) and complicated by participants' need to consider a variety of proposals for new legislative authorities and administrative rule changes, as well as annual funding. AMERICAN FORESTS and our community-based forestry partners have attempted to maintain an active presence in this debate, but it hasn't been easy.
As I mentioned in the Spring issue (Washington, Outlook, P. 21), the FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill passed by Congress in February included a rider authorizing expanded use of stewardship contracting authorities for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Those authorities, a key component of the President's HFI, would allow multi-year contracts and the exchange of goods, such as small-diameter timber, for land services under the same contract. AMERICAN FORESTS and a number of its partners urged the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to convene a meeting of diverse interest groups and individuals experienced in stewardship-contracting projects before developing guidelines for new expanded authorities.
The goal of the meeting, which the Secretaries held in April through the Pinchot Institute for Conservation with assistance from AMERICAN FORESTS, was to build trust and share knowledge gained through and from 84 existing pilot projects. The report from this "National Outreach Forum" captured many perspectives on stewardship contracting and offered suggestions on implementing the new authorities. The agencies' proposed interim guidelines are being released as we go to press, and we plan to comment on them by the July 28 deadline.
In the last issue, I also mentioned several administrative rule changes proposed by the Administration. These changes would make it easier for the Forest Service to implement certain types of projects, such as hazardous fuels reduction and small-timber sales, by requiring less environmental analysis and limiting administrative appeals. AMERICAN FORESTS supports some of these concepts, but we're concerned about the increased discretion allotted to agency officials and the limited guidance given for increased collaboration with local stakeholders and for multiparty monitoring, an effort to ensure learning. Several of these proposed rule changes have recently become final, and they can have important effects on how the Forest Service will actually implement projects. We see increased collaboration and multiparty monitoring as mechanisms to participate with the Forest Service and track what is being accomplished. …