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Mon, Aug. 03

Candidate’s plans for our forest health<br>

While the Bush administration has been applauded for cutting through environmental red tape with the 2003 signing of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has forest restoration plans of his own.

The current HFRA streamlines the judicial process with which environmental groups have had previous success stopping certain forest clearing projects. It also allocates $760 million for treatment of 20 million acres — both in and around municipalities and in deeper forest areas — identified as at-risk for catastrophic wildfire. The bill stipulates that at least 50 percent of the funds go towards clearing public lands within wildland/urban interface boundaries.

HFRA critics say the act is inadequate because the bill only addresses public lands, which leaves 85 percent of the WUI areas that need clearing untouched. Supporters argue that at least it is a step in the right direction, and that many state lawmakers are addressing the other 85 percent — labeled as private land — by trying to bring back the once-mighty timber industry through incentives and tax breaks.

Two main problems still exist. One is that even though billions are being spent for the Iraq conflict, the federal government claims it simply doesn’t have enough money to thin out all the private WUI lands. The other is that there are very few timber companies interested in or capable of using small-diameter wood — the exact type of material that needs to be thinned out.

Kerry’s plan seems to be more of a dovetail to the current HFRA, and officials within the Kerry camp say that he doesn’t intend to radically change the bill or introduce a new one, but rather add to it in some areas.

“The major differences are the priorities,” said Kerry-Edwards Communications Director Sue Walitsky.

The two major components of the Kerry-Edwards plan are to, one, create jobs and training by taking government subsidies away from the timber industry — starting with $100 million — and use it to create a special forest restoration corps. Those who may lose their jobs from timber industry cutbacks would be first in line for retraining and re-hiring within the newly created corps. The second is to provide low-interest loans to both new and existing timber companies for the purpose of investing in start-up technology for small-diameter wood use or creating small-wood timber companies. This, according to Walitsky, will also help in creating more jobs.

In addition, the Democrat’s plan includes making sure states have the “real” cost of fire fighting included in their budgets so no shortcomings arise and that firefighters have the tools they need to effectively deal with wildfire threats.

Kerry critics are calling the plan “no more than a thumbnail sketch” to try win over voters living in the at-risk areas. Though the Kerry-Edwards approach may have merit as far as its efforts to create jobs and more companies that can use small-diameter wood, state Republican lawmakers have gone so far as to warn that if Kerry gets elected, the HFRA and all forest health initiatives would come to a screeching halt.

Others still have reported the opinion that perhaps the best approach might actually be a merging of the candidates’ ideas.

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