Bush Budget Boosts Forests, Fishby Matthew Daly, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 8, 2004
WASHINGTON -- With the November election looming, the Bush administration is touting plans to boost spending on environmental programs crucial to the West.
From preventing wildfires in national forests to restoring salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers, the president's budget proposal includes a host of new spending for the region.
The $2.4 trillion spending plan for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 also would boost spending for land and water conservation programs and maintenance and construction in national parks.
It's all part of an effort to showcase the president's commitment to the environment, the White House says, noting that overall spending on the environment and natural resources would jump to a record $46.9 billion - 3 percent higher than the amount Bush proposed last year.
But environmentalists and some Democrats say the administration's budget numbers don't add up.
They accuse the president of trying to make up for a weak record on the environment by placing a "green sheen" on a budget they say would actually cut money for most environmental programs.
Most of the increases - including a much-touted plan to spend $760 million to fully fund the new Healthy Forests Restoration Act - amount to little more than accounting tricks aimed at helping Bush win re-election, critics say.
"A leopard doesn't change it spots," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., a longtime Bush critic. "The president is not suddenly going to become an environmentalist after all these years of rolling back protections for the environment."
Jay Ward, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, called the shift in emphasis an election-year conversion, saying the administration would pay for forest thinning by diverting money from other accounts.
Administration officials dispute that. Mark Rey, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees forest issues, said the proposed budget includes at least $80 million in new spending for forest-thinning and other activities.
The money would be used to treat up to 4 million acres at risk of fire - an increase of about 300,000 acres over current efforts and quadruple the amount treated in 2000, when 8 million acres of forest land burned. Most of the thinning projects - which include prescribed burns and removal of underbrush that fuels wildfires - would be focused near homes and communities.
Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the White House budget office, calls the healthy forest law one of Bush's top priorities.
"This is a bill that the president proposed and worked with the Congress to ultimately pass, and so he's committing resources to a program he has championed," Kolton said.
But environmentalists called the $760 million figure misleading. They said it applies to a range of activities that go beyond projects to remove small trees and underbrush.
The budget for so-called hazardous fuels reduction is actually $475 million, environmentalists say - $33 million more than this year's figure but far short of the $760 million authorized by Congress.
At the same time, the budget increases timber industry subsidies and cuts grants to state and private forestry programs by 42 percent, to $77 million, they said.
The cut for state and private forestry shows the administration's true priorities, said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization. "That's the line item that really does protect local communities and homes," she said.
Environmentalists also questioned the administration's promise to increase spending for Pacific Coast salmon recovery by 10 percent - to $100 million - saying that is just a fraction of the overall budget for salmon recovery in the Northwest.
The administration's $607 million proposal to recover endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake River Basin is 8 percent less than the White House requested last year and 4 percent less than enacted by Congress, said Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
At $900 million, the administration says its budget request would fully fund land and water conservation programs.
But environmentalists say the true figure is closer to $314 million. The administration's figure includes more than a dozen other, ongoing programs as part of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a "smoke and mirrors" trick that masks its true intentions, said Bonnie Galvin, director of budget and appropriations programs for The Wilderness Society.
"National treasures from the Everglades to our neighborhood parks will suffer from the resulting net loss in funds for expanding ... parks, refuges and forests," she said.
USDA healthy forest page: www.fs.fed.us/projects/hfi/
The Wilderness Society: www.tws.org
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