Cuts to Forest Service timber budget were ill conceived, poorly timed |

Cuts to Forest Service timber budget were ill conceived, poorly timed

What were they thinking?

This question graced the lips of more than a few people upon hearing that the latest federal budget will hack the U.S. Forest Service’s timber budget for the Rocky Mountain Region next year by more than 30 percent.

Read that as nearly one of every three dollars ” in a region that not only met its timber program targets for 2007, but also happens to be beset by a pine beetle infestation of epic proportions.

What were they thinking? Indeed, what planet are they on?

It’s not unreasonable that the Forest Service budget would be eyed for cuts like any other agency in this day and age, when the Beltway is bleeding red ink faster than the Bush administration and Congress can print greenbacks.

But, hello, it would certainly behoove the bean counters to consider what’s happening in the field before they start flailing away with their budget-cutting ax.

The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region includes Colorado and Wyoming, two states where the pine beetle epidemic is truly that, an epidemic. Moreover, the approaches to and parts of two of the nation’s most popular and precious national parks ” Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone ” are particularly afflicted.

Yet, for the sake of saving what in Washington can only be referred to as chump change ” perhaps enough money to fund the war in Iraq for a few days? ” the region’s ability to combat this problem will be severely undermined.

The timber budget is where the money comes from to “pay for all of what’s necessary to offer a (timber) sale,” said Sulphur Ranger District Chief Craig Magwire. That’s all the environmental analyses, contract administration, field surveys to identify potential harvest areas and oversight of the harvests.

It’s also where the money comes from to cope with millions of acres of beetle-kill. The timber budget is the source of funds used to create fire breaks in infested forests, to remove beetle-killed trees and to clear areas to make room for new growth.

It’s bad enough that the budget has been cut so deeply. (Face it, no one can argue with a straight face that 31 percent is a moderate reduction.) What’s worse, however, is the timing of the cuts, and on several fronts at that:

– This region was one of the only ones in the country that successfully produced its promised volume of timber sales this year. Yanking the proverbial carpet out from under the region’s feet is an odd way to reward such dedication and efficiency.

– Less money means fewer mitigation projects at a time when many private landowners adjacent to national forests have ramped up their efforts to clean up beetle-infested trees and dead timber. These landowners have every right to expect their federal neighbor to reciprocate rather than abandon them as the beetle epidemic peaks.

– Development of the forest-urban interface throughout the region is proceeding at an unprecedented pace. Rather than cutting back funding for projects to minimize the danger of a catastrophic wildfire, logically the budget for such activities should be increasing.

– And, ongoing drought continues to leave standing timber in many parts of the region as parched as kiln-dried lumber. One needn’t live west of the Mississippi ” or the Potomac, for that matter ” to understand the potential ramifications of a stray lightning strike or a campfire left smoldering.

In fact, whatever savings budget writers hope to realize from these cuts are likely to go up in smoke ” quite literally ” during the next large wildfire, which will be made all the more likely because of the effects the ill-conceived cuts will have in the field.

Colorado’s congressional delegation, along with those from other states in the region, are asking that Washington restore the Rocky Mountain Region timber budget to the same level as this year. Under the circumstances, that’s more than reasonable.

Of course, being more than reasonable and a few bucks will get you a latte inside the Beltway, but not necessarily anything else. Here’s hoping reason prevails and Washington finds a better way to save a few bucks.

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