WASHINGTON - A Bush administration spending plan that would slash money for the Forest Service could lead to massive layoffs at the agency charged with managing 193 million acres of national forests, Democratic lawmakers said yesterday.
Spending for the Forest Service would be cut by nearly 8 percent next year, to $4.1 billion, in a budget plan submitted by President Bush.
The plan could mean the loss of more than 2,700 jobs - nearly 10 percent of the agency's workforce - as well as reductions in dozens of programs not related to fires, from road and trail maintenance to state assistance, land acquisition, and recreation, lawmakers said.
Representative Norm Dicks, Democrat of Washington and chairman of the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee, called the budget plan "an unmitigated disaster" that "would cause real harm to our 193 million acre national forest system."
The only bright spot in the budget was a request to increase spending to fight wildfires by about $148 million to just under $1 billion, Dicks said.
The figure was based on the 10-year average of firefighting costs. The Forest Service spent $1.4 billion fighting fires nationwide last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The Interior Department spent an additional $450 million.
Even the increase for firefighting comes with a catch, Dick said. The plan would cut spending for fire prevention and preparedness - an approach Dicks said "would guarantee large, expensive wildfires again next year.
Gail Kimbell, Forest Service chief, acknowledged that the budget request was "challenging," but told Dicks, "I can report to you the state of the Forest Service is sound."
The president's budget reflects his priorities: support for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security, and economic growth, Kimbell said.