Interior Secretary calls for state and local involvement in forest, water issues |

Interior Secretary calls for state and local involvement in forest, water issues

Geoff Dornan, Appeal Capitol Bureau

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Gale Ann Norton Thursday urged support for a plan involving state and local governments as well as business and nonprofit groups in solving forest and wildland problems.

Using fire management as an example, she said increasingly extreme fires are the result of problems “that have been building for decades because of the dense forests.” Natural forests, she said, are much thinner with more open space beneath the canopy.

She said scientists have shown the more open, less dense forest of 100 years ago was able to survive a fire where the dense, overgrown forests now common on public lands suffer catastrophic fires destroying them.

She said there is growing consensus that the nation’s public forests must have the dense underbrush and excess trees removed to restore their health and help prevent disastrous fires.

“We can have the taxpayers do this, but it’s expensive,” she said.

The answer, she said, is “stewardship contracts” with not only state and local governments but nonprofit groups and businesses which would agree to manage sections of forest important to them.

She said charges the plan is just a scheme to let lumbermen have their way in the forests are not true.

“You determine what trees would be taken out by what you want the forest to look like after,” she said.

She said clear cutting forests is no longer a favored approach.

“And in many areas, the recognition is those old growth stands are going to be preserved,” she said.

State BLM Director Bob Abbey said fixing the problem is going to be expensive no matter what is done.

“But do we want to spend a billion dollars a year fighting fires or do we want to spend a billion dollars a year being proactive?” Abbey said.

Norton admitted environmental groups haven’t fully signed on to the idea but said it is vital something be done to reduce the overgrowth of the forests because those dense, brush clogged sections of forest are most susceptible to catastrophic fires.

She said companies and other groups signing stewardship agreements to manage forest land will find markets for the wood products they get from the land. In return, the nation gets a much healthier forest.

She said involving all interested parties in decisions is her administration’s goal — not only in fire management but in water and other issues as well

“Across the board we really want states to have a greater role than they’ve had in the recent past,” she said.

She said the Interior Department will still have to take a lead role in major, multi-state issues such as water appropriations along the Colorado River, which passes through seven states.

But she said states will find they are expected to have a say in most such debates because bringing in all the parties to an issue is the only way to reach lasting agreement.

Norton was visiting Nevada to attend a conference at Lake Tahoe. On her way, she visited the Yankee Caithness geothermal power plant at Steamboat between Reno and Carson City, telling those there the nation needs to do more to encourage development of geothermal and other renewable resources.

She said the Bush Administration is working with Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., on his bill to provide relief from federal royalties for businesses which develop a geothermal plant on public lands. She said, however, the administration had planned relatively few tax breaks.

“The breaks in the House and Senate versions are considerably higher,” she said adding that the president has not yet decided how much tax relief to support to encourage development.

“If we don’t provide some royalty relief, we may not have any income at all because it won’t be used,” she said.