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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Today's guest: Interior Secretary Gale Norton

Gale Norton
Gale Norton
May 20, 2003

White House photo Gale Norton
Good evening, I'm Gale Norton, Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

This morning Agriculture Secretary Veneman and I briefed President Bush on the outlook for the 2003 wildland fire season and the projects underway to improve the long-term health of the nation's forest and rangeland areas.

Last year's fire season -- among the worst in the past four decades -- saw more than 88,000 fires burn 7.2 million acres.  Three states -- Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona -- registered their worst fires in their history in 2002.

An estimated 190 million acres of federal forests and rangelands face high risk of catastrophic fire. Drought conditions coupled with years of fuel buildup make these lands vulnerable to intense and environmentally destructive fires.  Many ponderosa pine forests are 15 times denser than they were a century ago.  Where 25 to 35 trees once grew on each acre of forest, now more than 500 trees are crowded together in unhealthy conditions.

I look forward to talking with you -- so let's begin.

Rick, from Midvale, Utah writes:
There is a serious problem in Utah. Grass is already high and it could be a terrible year for us. Will there be more firefighters this year?

White House photo Gale Norton
Yes, we have about 3,000 more firefighters than we had in 2000. Many people focus on the forest fires, but rangeland fires are also a big problem. At Interior, over 75 percent of our lands are non-commercial woodlands or rangelands. Although there are continuing concerns about drought, recent precipitation has improved the wildfire predictions for Utah.

Jason, from Wisconsin writes:
My Representative, Tammy Baldwin, is opposed to this bill because she says it will give carte blanche to logging companies to carve out the forests and do away with most environmental reviews now required. If this is the case, isn't there a better way to achieve the goal without giving up so much to a special interest?

Gale Norton
Department of Interior photo This is a common misperception. The biggest problem in our forests are small trees that have grown densely around the larger trees. In Ponderosa Pine forests, there are 15 times as many trees today as there were a century ago. Where 25 trees once grew on each acre of forest, now more than 500 are crowded together in unhealthy conditions. Our challenge is to find uses for small trees and brush that is removed from the forest. Biomass is an exciting opportunity. Most of Interior's forests do not have commercial timber.

Our plan is founded on collaboration, and all environmental laws continue to apply.

Percy, from Bailey, Park County CO. The home of the Hayman, Snakey and Hi MedowFires, Plus writes:
Why must logging companys be used to thin the forest? They are only interested in old growth trees that are profitable to them, not the young trees or brush, or the deadwood that is laying around. Are they going to clean up all their slash and trimmings? If they do not then it is the same thing that we have now. Are they going to clear cut? Are the loggers going to repair the damage that their equipment causes to the forest floor? If you really want to thin the forest of fire fuel, then use CHIPPERS to remove the young trees and brush also the deadwood laying around. I am sure there is a market for the chips. As a person who has and will be working on these fires, I think I do have a little background on this subject.

Thank You

White House photo Gale Norton
We are using stewardship contracting to build partnerships with non-profit organizations and communities. These organizations will be compensated by the value of what they take from the forest, but our main concern is the health of the trees that remain. We need creative solution like biomass to develop markets for chips. I have seen research at the Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, WI that uses woodchips and small diameter logs to create new products. They even combine these materials with recycled milk bottles to make fire-resistant shingles and picnic tables. These provide opportunities for future self-sustaining care for our forests, and new jobs for rural communities.

Debbie, from San Carlos Apache Tribe writes:
Secretary Norton - The Tribes in the Southwest over the past several years have been battling forest fires, droughts, and insect infestations e.g., the bark beetle and have sought federal assistance from your agency. Specifically, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, located in San Carlos, Arizona, is in dire need of watershed assistance to reduce the damage to its reservation ecosystem from these environmental elements. The San Carlos Apache Tribe supports efforts to create a Tribal watershed assistance program like the program that is envisioned for states. What is your position on such a program? As you may know, in the past, it has been difficult for Tribes to obtain funding that is administered by the States. Also, what are other ways that the Department can assist the Tribe to combat these present and potential natural disasters.

Department of Interior photoGale Norton
The Bureau of Indian Affairs at Interior has been working closely with tribes on forest initiatives. In many ways, tribes have been leaders in developing healthy forest practices. For example, the Mescalaro Apache have been leading the way in forest thinning to improve the health of their lands. There are many opportunities for tribes to engage in stewarship contracting to protect federal lands as well.

Steve, from Arizona writes:
What is the Administration doing to assist Tribes in the Southwest to battle the bark beetle infestation which is killing massive amounts of forests, thereby greatly increasing the risk of fire, especially given the severe drought over the past several years? If the Administration currently has no plan in place to assist Tribes on this problem, what will the Administration pledge to do to assist them?

Department of Interior photoGale Norton
There are several efforts underway that should help all types of forests facing insect problems, as well as disease. Legislation that the House of Representatives passed today by a bipartisan majority would enhance work by the Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey researching ways of controlling these problems. They can be very severe. For example, in southern California, a bark beetle infestation covered only 200 acres last August. Today it has killed trees on over 500,000 acres. Many areas in the South have similar severe insect problems.

Josh, from Burlington, Vermont writes:
This is a controversial topic and the thought of forests burning again this summer scares me. But shouldn't we restrict fuel reduction project to only those urban areas threatened by fire?

White House photo Gale Norton
We give our highest priority to areas where homes are threatened. About 60 percent of our fuels treatment budget is devoted to these areas. It is also important to protect municipal watersheds. A fire in these areas can interfere with water supply. For example, the Hayman fire in Colorado last summer severely damaged hills above Cheesman Resevoir, which supplies most of Denver's water. We also want to restore wildlife habitat, which has also been degraded by the buildup of unnaturally dense forests. The Fish and Wildlife Service especially, uses prescribed burns to enhace habitats for its refuges.

Richard, from Beaverton, Oregon writes:
The plan is controversial because it removes traditional involvement of the environmental community and the public. How will you demonstrate to citizens that their lands will be protected and not degraded for profit by the timber industry?

Gale Norton
Our projects to remove hazardous fuels buildup all start at the local level. The first step in the process we have created includes meeting with citizens to discuss priority projects. We are also working closely with local governments, state foresters and tribes to ensure that there is strong public support for our fuels treatment.

Chris, from Seattle WA writes:
Why does the President seem to think that cutting down more trees will lead to a 'healthy forest?' I can see how this will benefit the forest industry but not the forest.

White House photo Gale Norton
I grew up in Colorado and can see that there are many more small trees in the forest today than there were when I was a child. Historically, these small trees were thinned out by frequent natural fires. Unfortunately, we suppressed fires too thoroughly for many decades without actively managing the forests. Today the forests are too dense to use fire as the main remedy to restore the forests, because today's fires kill even the centuries-old giant trees. Today's forest fires are catastrophic -- they are hotter, faster and more unpredictable. They destroy habitat, scorch the soil, and pollute the air and water. The only way to restore the natural role of fire in the ecosystems is to thin out some of the trees.

White House photo

Rich, from Virginia writes:
Which is your favorite National Park?

Gale Norton
I love all the National Parks. I grew up visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado with my family, and it has a special place in my heart. I encourage everyone to visit a National Park and choose your own favorite.

Jason, from Lincoln, Nebraska writes:
Who will win American Idol Clay or Ruben?

Gale Norton
I am no Simmon Cowell. I tend to follow Paula Abdul's lead and I think they are both talented. Both of them are winners.

I've enjoyed talking with you about the President's Healthy Forest Initiative and other important issues the Interior Department is handling. I encourage everyone who didn't have their questions answered go to:, /infocus/healthyforests/ or for more information.