The Bush administration and supporters claim the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) will protect communities from the wrath of wildfires. But that's hotly contested by environmental groups, who say the legislation is a thinly disguised matchmaking effort for big timber and the Forest Service, and provides federal funds for timber sales that won't necessarily be used to protect communities.
HFRA authorizes (but has not appropriated) $760 million for treating 20 million acres of federal land. The Forest Service hasn't seen any of that money yet. Rick Brazell, supervisor for the Colville National Forest (CNF), says he is working to implement HFRA even without the funds.
"The authority is there, but we use our regularly appropriated dollars," Brazell says. "No money was allocated for 2004. We only have a little extra money. My understanding is that there will be new money in '05."
There is increasing speculation over whether Bush's $760 million will really come through -- and if so, whether it will be new money directed toward the Forest Service, or pieced together from other line items in their budget. In addition, the bill requires only 50 percent of those funds to be used around the boundaries between communities and national forests, or, as it's called, the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Though the HFRA designates that urban interfaces extend about a half-mile out from each community, it allows communities, in cooperation with the Forest Service, to determine the distance between the boundary of their town and the forest, making the WUI a hot topic for environmentalists and the timber industry: the larger the WUI, the more logging and fuel reduction. The CNF has about 200,000 acres of WUI to treat.
"Colville [National Forest] is coming around," says Rein Attemann, forest watch coordinator for the Lands Council. "They realize that with the fire situation, the protection of communities and structures should happen within the one to one-and-a-half miles closest to homes."
The Idaho Panhandle National Forest (IPNF), however, is suggesting the interface around communities near their forests could be as much as five times what the HFRA suggests, confirming what many forest activists claim, which is that Idaho Panhandle National Forest will use the HFRA as an excuse to create large timber sales.
"The range could be a half-mile up to five or six miles," says Dave O'Brian, spokesman for the IPNF. "There's not an absolute number."
While the CNF plans to focus about 80 percent of its HFRA funds on reducing fuels in urban interfaces, the IPNF won't say for sure if it plans on doing the same.
"We're going to meet the requirements of HFRA and go first to the urban interface," says O'Brian. Beyond that, he will only say that the backcountry needs to be treated for fire suppression as well: "For years we've been working on projects largely in the backcountry because of the ecosystem restoration needs in the forest."
For many environmentalists, that means timber companies could log old-growth trees, using taxpayer money and possibly in unroaded areas in the name of fire suppression. Indeed, O'Brian suggests that the IPNF will use Bush's HFRA to justify previously determined timber sales, like the Rising Cougar Project, which would log about 5,400 acres, two-thirds of which are in roadless areas and invade three nationally inventoried Old Growth Management Units.
"Our larger projects, like Rising Cougar, really fit in well with what the HFRA is wanting us to do," O'Brian says. "Technically, I think [IPNF] has the interpretation that Rising Cougar is in the WUI."
The timber industry, which has supported HFRA because of the implications for logging, is clear enough about what it's looking for from the Forest Service's implementation of the act. Doug Bartells, a spokesman for Boise Cascade, says the company may or may not bite on contracts with Colville National Forest for fuel reduction, especially since working the WUI -- where CNF claims it will put 80 percent of its funds -- wouldn't be profitable for the company.
"Implementation of the HFRA, particularly if it's applied on a broad basis across the forest, could be of value and interest to the forest products industry," Bartells says. "But the WUI would produce very little commercial timber. The real opportunity is across the forests. Higher volumes of commercial timber could be produced. We're very pleased with the HFRA, and hopefully the Forest Service will be serious about complete implementation of it."