New Forest Service Chief Gets Rough Welcome From Congress

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Congressional Democrats dismissed as "unworkable" the first budget request of new Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell.

Kimbell, the first woman to head the Forest Service, came under fire Tuesday as she defended President Bush's request for the next budget year, which deals her agency a spending cut and eliminates more than 2,100 jobs.

"This is a rough and, in my view, a very unworkable budget," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee.

"I feel sorry for you, having to support this 'let's pretend' budget," added Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the overall spending panel.

Kimbell, who formerly supervised national forests in Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas, began her new job Feb. 5 — the same day Bush announced his budget plan for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

"It's difficult," Kimbell acknowledged after the hearing. "There will be some real challenges."

Bush's $4.1 billion budget request represents a 1.6 percent cut from estimated spending for the current year and is down nearly 4 percent from 2006.

Even so, it would boost spending to fight forest fires by 23 percent to $911 million — a recognition that firefighting costs have topped $1 billion in four of the past seven years. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the Forest Service in the past for under-budgeting for fire expenses, noting that money is often taken from other accounts to pay for fire suppression.

Still, Dicks said the budget request has "big problems." While it increases spending for fire suppression, it cuts money for fire preparedness, work done to thin overcrowded forest to reduce the risk of fire.

"We all know that to keep suppression costs down, initial attack is vital. Yet this budget proposes a $92 million reduction in preparedness, so more fires would escape and cause damage," he said.

Dicks and other lawmakers also attacked an administration plan to sell more than 200,000 acres of national forest land to help rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.

"I have grave doubts about this proposal and I wonder why something so soundly rejected last year would appear again," Dicks said.

Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., called the land sale plan "totally unrealistic" and said, "It's certainly not going to happen in the current Congress."

Kimbell and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, said the land sale plan makes several changes from last year. Most importantly, it would ensure than at least half the revenue from the sales would stay in the state where the land is sold. Officials made the change after lawmakers complained that money from the sales would benefit other states.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., told Rey the plan was "better than last year" but still problematic. She complained that more than 21,500 acres of the Mark Twain National Forest are set to be sold, with Missouri only receiving half the proceeds.