August 11, 2008

Forest Fire Costs Will Sap Park Road Funds


The cost of fighting forest fires in the West will delay some critical road projects scheduled for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest this year.

The Forest Service has ordered a freeze on the award of new contracts by national forests to help it make up a $400 million cost overrun - so far - in its national fire-fighting budget this year. The directive comes as more than two dozen large wildfires continue to burn in the West.

Repair of popular Forest Service Road 99 to Windy Ridge on the east side of Mount St. Helens could be put off until next year, said Ron Freeman, the Gifford Pinchot's public services staff officer.

The Forest Service announced last week that a major washout on the popular road would force its closure for the rest of this year.

"We hoped to get the contract out this year," Freeman said. "If we have to wait until October, we're getting into the fall and winter, and the work won't happen until next year."

The agency is expected to lift the freeze with the beginning of the new federal fiscal year Oct. 1.

Critical habitat work may also be delayed. The Gifford Pinchot received a special appropriation of $500,000 this year to repair deteriorating forest roads that threaten habitat for imperiled salmon and steelhead. Much of the damage is the result of the November 2006 floods. Planning for those projects also is limbo.

Final decisions on the first round of cuts are due next week from the agency's regional office in Portland.

"Right now they have put a hold on everything," Freeman said Friday.

However, the freeze won't delay work on two other roads that provide access to popular recreation areas, Freeman said. Emergency funding from the Federal Highway Administration will pay for the repair of Road 83 on the south side of Mount St. Helens and Road 23 on the west flank of Mount Adams.

Emily Platt, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, said the delay is disappointing. Her organization contributed $50,000 toward the $156,000 cost of removing the 2575 Road in the Muddy River watershed, one of the projects that is now on hold.

The project called for decommissioning the road, removing culverts to restore fish passage and stabilizing the slope to reduce sediment to the main stem of Clear Creek, which is home to steelhead, salmon and resident trout.

In all, the Gifford Pinchot suffered $17 million in damage to roads and trails in the 2006 floods. That came on top of a pre- existing $40 million road repair backlog.

Forest spokesman Chris Strebig said this year's national fire budget of $1.2 billion had been spent down to $116 million by the beginning of August, with two months of the fire season still to go.

"The estimate is that we will spend $1.6 billion, which leaves a $400 million deficit," he said. "This will be made up in four $100 million increments. Each region will figure out how to make up that increment."

Raiding other Forest Service programs to pay for firefighting has become an annual ritual that has received harsh criticism from Congress. Nearly half the agency's budget now goes to fire suppression and fire prevention, up from 13 percent in 1991.

To pay for putting out wildfires, the Forest Service routinely taps accounts intended for reforestation, habitat protection and roads, campgrounds and trails. Congress usually appropriates emergency money to bail out the agency, but some fed-up lawmakers say it's time the agency's budget adequately reflected firefighting costs.

"The Forest Service would be on its knees except for the money Congress provides," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that approves the Forest Service budget. "This thing is pretty close to being out of control."

"The Forest Service bases its budget for forest fires on wishful thinking," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the respective Senate subcommittee. "It's a constant juggling act, and that's not the way it should be done."

Nevertheless, Congress last week rejected President Bush's request for an additional $289 million to fight wildfires.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth told Congress earlier this year that a long-term solution is needed.

"It's absolutely crazy to continue year after year wondering if we have to transfer money to cover fire costs," he said.

The Columbian's wire services contributed to this report.

Originally published by KATHIE DURBIN Columbian staff writer.

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