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Department of Interior
For Immediate Release
March 3, 2004

Secretary Norton Underscores Healthy Forest Initiatives

Last Friday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton lauded the forest management, wildfire prevention, and habitat restoration work of the staff, partners and support groups of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, saying they are an outstanding example of what can be done through community partnerships under President Bush's National Fire Plan and Healthy Forest Initiative.

Her remarks followed meetings with refuge staff, members of the Friends of Turnbull, and representatives of other refuge partner groups and a tour of several successful Healthy Forest Initiative projects at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife site in Cheney, Washington.

Noting that President Bush has proposed $760 million in the FY 2005 budget to continue his Healthy Forests Initiative, Norton said the requested funds would support activities, such as those at the Trumbull refuge, that improve forest and rangeland management, develop and maintain healthier landscapes, and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

"Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is a model program under our National Fire Plan." Norton said. "The refuge has but one goal for its forest management program-the biological health of the forest ecosystem. Turnbull also is an example of national wildlife refuges across the nation that are using the tools provided by the Healthy Forests Initiative to improve habitat, protect species, and reduce the threat of wildfires."

The overstocked ponderosa pine stands at Turnbull are being addressed with solutions that are used on other lands through the National Fire Plan, Norton noted, saying "From an ecosystem management perspective, hazard fuel reduction projects are effective."

"Scientists tell us there are now hundreds or even thousands of pines per acre in eastern Washington and at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, where once there were only 40 to 60," Norton said. "There are now far too many stands of scrawny, dog hair pines."

Noting the complexity of healthy forest ecosystems, Norton said the National Fire Plan and the President's Healthy Forest Initiative are designed to tackle these issues. President Bush introduced his Healthy Forests Initiative in August 2002 during the height of one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in 50 years. The president signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which received bipartisan support in the Congress, on Dec. 3, 2003.

The President's FY '05 Healthy Forests budget proposal, about a $500 million increase from FY 2000, takes an integrated approach to reducing hazardous fuels and restoring forest and rangeland health.

"The increase represents the President's determination and strong commitment to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires and to restore the health of our nation's forests and rangelands," Norton said. "This funding level, coupled with collaboration with local communities such as those here at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge and other land-management tools provided under the President's Healthy Forests Initiative will enhance the ability of field managers to make decisions more effectively and more quickly."

The fuels reduction program will be integrated with programs that support wildlife habitat improvements, watershed enhancements, vegetation management, and stewardship timber harvest and forest health research to achieve more comprehensive and effective results on the ground.

The FY '05 proposed Healthy Forests Initiative budget will reduce hazardous fuel loads and insect infestation on nearly four million acres, up from 1.2 million in FY 2000. From 2001-2003, the Forest Service and Interior agencies treated a total of 7 million acres. In 2004, the agencies intend to treat an additional 3.7 million acres.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consistently burns a greater percentage of its lands than any other agency, at an overall cheaper cost, contributing to its leadership in meeting and exceeding the department's established goals for hazardous fuels reduction, Norton noted. As a result of prescribed burning and wild land fire use, Service-managed lands are maintained in the best and safest ecological condition among the agencies, with over 70 percent rated in "good" condition.

Several years ago, the forested habitat here at Turnbull refuge--about 11,000 acres--was in an unhealthy condition due to decades of fire suppression and selective harvesting of the ponderosa pine. The strategy to improve forest habitat has involved mechanical thinning treatments followed by prescribed fire to restore pine stands to a more historic density. The biological goal is to reduce existing densities of 400-600 trees per acre to 40-60 trees per acre. Initially this has been accomplished by mechanical thinning followed by rotations of prescribed fires.

With increased emphasis in the National Fire Plan and the increased funding that has been provided, prescribed fires at Turnbull refuge have increased from historic levels of treating 350-450 acres per year to treating more than 1,000 acres per year. Since 2001, under the hazardous fuels treatment program, the refuge has thinned 537 acres and prescribed burned 2,474 acres. Most of the thinning work was contracted to local contractors.

Additionally, under the Wildland Urban Interface program, the refuge has led efforts since 2001 to mechanically thin 240 acres of private land and 1,157 acres of refuge lands that could threaten residential areas around the refuge. All of these projects were accomplished with private contractors.

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