Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Commerce Secretary Don Evans today announced improved administrative procedures to expedite forest health projects under the Bush Administration's Healthy Forests Initiative.
The announcements -- the result of proposals and guidance released in December -- will focus environmental analysis and allow vital forest health projects to move forward, such as the removal of flammable materials and the reseeding and planting of areas severely burned by wildland fires. In addition, the Secretaries announced a proposed rule to improve the consultation process while maintaining protections under the Endangered Species Act.
"These new tools will reduce the layers of unnecessary red tape and procedural delay that prevent agency experts from acting quickly to protect communities and our natural resources from devastating wildfires," said Veneman. "These common sense approaches to restoring forest and rangeland health and protecting communities from the risk of wildland fires are an important part of President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative."
Last year, over 7 million acres burned in wildfires - an area the size of Maryland and Rhode Island combined. The Administration has made much progress in reducing the risk of catastrophic wildland fires through active forest management to restore forest and rangeland health. In 2002, flammable forest materials were removed on more than 2.2 million acres. This is a million acres more than were treated in fiscal year 2000. An additional 2.8 million acres are slated for treatment by the end of fiscal 2003 and more work still needs to be done to improve the health of our public lands.
"Through our Healthy Forests Initiative, we are restoring millions of acres of our forests and rangelands and protecting communities from catastrophic fires," said Norton. "Millions of acres of public lands are affected with insect damage. Invasive plants crowd out native plants. Tree stands, after years of poor management, are so thick that they cannot grow to natural size. We need to reverse these trends."
Actions announced today, which were shaped by significant public input, include the following:
- New procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would allow priority fuel treatments (prescribed fire and thinning) and past fire restoration (reseeding and planting) projects to proceed without the need for further individual analyses and lengthier documentation. The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior conducted lengthy analysis in developing these procedures, including reviewing nearly 2600 fuel reduction projects for effects on water, air, wildlife and other environmental resources. The agencies found forest health, particularly wildlife habitat, significantly improved after reducing fuel loads, and that threats to air and water quality caused by fire were reduced. The new procedures are limited to projects of a certain size and must be outside environmentally sensitive areas. The procedures also require experts to identify fuels treatment projects to be identified in collaboration with state, local and tribal governments, landowners and other stakeholders.
- Final administrative rules for the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to expedite appeals of forest and rangeland health projects and encourage early and more meaningful public participation. These improvements will reduce complex procedures and provide more timely decision-making. They also will provide greater flexibility in emergency situations.
A proposed rule for the Departments of the Interior and Commerce to establish an alternative consultation process under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act for forest and range management projects within the scope of the National Fire Plan. This proposal will expedite review and implementation of fuels treatment projects and ecosystem restoration activities, while at the same time protecting threatened and endangered species and their habitat. The alternative consultation process will eliminate unnecessary duplicative review of actions determined to be "not likely to adversely affect" any listed species or designated critical habitat.
"The Healthy Forests Initiative will help restore resilient, productive salmon habitat and protect human life and property from out-of-control wildfires," said Evans. "This proposed new regulation is another example of the Administration's interagency, innovative approach to providing efficient and effective conservation of the nation's living marine resources. It will empower on-the-ground resource experts to do what they do best, while not reducing protection for listed species or habitats."
The Departments continue to implement guidance from the White House Council on Environmental Quality to establish an improved and focused process for conducting NEPA environmental assessments. The Departments expect to complete the environmental assessments on 15 pilot fuels treatment this summer using this guidance.
President Bush announced the Healthy Forests Initiative in August of 2002, directing federal agencies to develop administrative and legislative measures that will help reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire to America's forests and rangelands. The initiative builds on a historic ten-year plan for reducing wildfire risks adopted in the spring of 2002 by federal agencies in cooperation with western and southern governors, county commissioners, state foresters and tribal officials.
Both the final administrative rules and the proposed rule for alternative consultation will be published in the Federal Register next week. On behalf of the Departments of Commerce and the Interior, the Department of the Interior will accept comments on the proposed rule for 60 days from publication. Comments should be sent to the Chief, Division of Consultation, Habitat Conservation, Planning, Recovery and State Grants, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, Room 420, Arlington, VA 22203. Comments will also be accepted via email if sent to HFCPREGS@FWS.GOV .
For more information on the Healthy Forests Initiative, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/projects/HFI.shtml