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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 11, 2002
Press Briefing by Secretary of Agriculture Veneman, Secretary of Interior Norton, Chairman, Council on Environmental Quality Connaughton, Chief, US Forest Service Bosworth and Assistant Secretary of the Interior Watson
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
2:57 P.M. EST
SECRETARY VENEMAN: Good afternoon and thank you for being here today. I am Ann Veneman, Secretary of Agriculture, and I'm pleased to be here with Secretary Gale Norton, the Secretary of the Interior; Jim Connaughton, who is the Chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality; Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary of the Interior; and our Chief of the Forest Service, Dale Bosworth, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He's a second-generation career forester who is here with us today.
We just had the opportunity to meet with the President on the status of the Healthy Forest Initiative that the President announced when we were in Oregon in August of this year. As you know, the purpose of this initiative is to streamline unnecessary, burdensome red tape that prevents the timely and effective implementation of wildfire prevention and forest health projects on public lands.
The Healthy Forests Initiative implements core components of the National Fire Plan's 10-year comprehensive strategy and implementation plan. Now, this strategy and implementation plan is a plan that Secretary Norton and Chairman Connaughton and I, along with the western governors, first unveiled when we were in Idaho last spring. The 10-year fire plan also works in partnership with county commissioners, state foresters, tribal officials in calling for more active forest and range land management. It establishes a framework for protecting communities and the environment through local collaboration on thinning, planned burns and forest restoration projects.
As you know, last summer, we experienced one of the most devastating fire years ever, and also one of the most expensive. More than 7 million acres burned. That's an area larger than the states of Maryland and Rhode Island combined. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, 23,000-plus structures were destroyed. And we had the opportunity to go out and visit with some of these people, some of these communities, to visit with the firefighters. And so we understand some of the things that have to be done in these forests so that we don't experience such devastating fires in the future.
Shortly, Secretary Norton will also describe some of the negative environmental impacts of all of this. Together, we have worked in a comprehensive say to aggressively respond to the crisis. Yet, even though we have more agreement than we ever have had on what to do, we continue to be hampered by outdated, inefficient and time-consuming processes that often delay projects to improve forest and rangeland health until it's too late.
The President asked Congress for additional authorities to pursue this objective, and bipartisan legislation was introduced this fall. And we look forward to working with Congress to enact legislation next year. The President has also instructed Secretary Norton, Chairman Connaughton and I to review our current policies and regulations and make improvements to ensure more timely decisions, greater efficiency, and better results.
Today, we're announcing several tools to implement the Healthy Forest Initiative. These include guidance to improve content and timeliness of environmental documentation required by the National Environmental Policy Act for Forest Health and Rangeland Health Projects. We have expert teams that are being dispatched to 10 project areas to assist field units with specially selected model projects using this improved guidance as a template. We are also proposing new rules to improve both the department's appeals processes for -- both of our departments' processes for appeals.
And this will encourage early and more meaningful public participation up front. It will reduce complex procedures and it will provide greater flexibility in emergency situations. We will also provide simpler documentation of environmental analyses for fuels, reductions, rehabilitation and erosion control measures where experience has consistently proven that there are no significant environmental impacts.
These rules will be published in the Federal Register for public notice and comment and we will be encouraging input from all stakeholders.
Finally, we are issuing guidance today to improve interagency planning to more effectively consider endangered species protection and better provide long-term environmental benefits for these species. The key to the President's healthy forests initiative is to focus on not what we take from the forests but how we leave the forests and what we leave in them. We want a healthy, strong, environmentally friendly forest with good habitat for our species.
Taken together, the improvements we're announcing will give managers the tools that they need to protect our national treasures. With these tools, we will leave future generations a legacy of healthy forests, safer communities and a quality environment.
It is now my pleasure to introduce my colleague, Secretary Gale Norton.
SECRETARY NORTON: Thanks, Ann. Good afternoon.
The first thing I'd like to tell you today is that we're dealing with an emergency situation. For those who think that we have a breathing spell this winter, I will remind people that the fire season beings early and that, in Arizona, for example, the fire season concerns begin as early as March. In many areas, we still have not seen people recover from the devastation of fires of last summer.
This year's roaring fire season burned the equivalent of two states. It touched families, friends and businesses in many different ways. Thousands of people in Arizona, Colorado, California, Oregon and New Mexico were evacuated from their homes. In the Rodeo Chideski fire, for example, 35,000 people in Arizona were evacuated. In South Dakota, deadwood was on fire, and so tourism halted throughout the Black Hills.
The list goes on. Destination spots became avoidance spots last summer. For those whose livelihood depends on tourism, it is a grim reality that people don't want to camp in burned-out forests or gaze at a charred landscape. Americans also need to realize that the emergency isn't over when the last embers die out. Watersheds are very important for the areas of the West.
Since the Missionary Ridge fire in Durango, Colorado, for example, this June, there have been fires and melting snows. The runoff over the charred area has burned -- with burned trees has loosened sediment and has plunged soil and rocks into the Animas River. News reports showed that boulders the size of cars came down hillsides and plowed into homes, sediment washed from riverbanks until the river ran black, and even now the sediment is still visible in the river. This is the river that provides water to the residents of Durango.
Similarly, Denver's major storage area burned in the Hayman fire. And that fire was the third largest in Colorado history. Now, runoff from the Hayman fire puts tons of debris into the Cheeseman Resevoir. It's intake system could not begin to handle the onslaught. Denver has been forced to spend millions of dollars to handle the negative impact on their water supply.
These examples are true in area after area throughout the West. The President's healthy forest initiative emphasized the need for improvement. We took the President's directive to our career employees who work at the local level managing our public lands, fighting fires, and cleaning up after fires. We asked them what could be done to help improve their work. Their recommendations that came to us are what we are announcing today. I thank them for their dedication and their insight.
One of the reforms that we need is better planning for wildlife and its habitat. Ironically, while the fuels reduction projects are sometimes blocked by endangered species concerns, the very projects that could have prevented catastrophic fires never get done. The endangered species habitat itself is sometimes destroyed by those catastrophic fires.
For example, the Biscuit fire in Oregon destroyed more then 100,000 acres of spotted owl habitat. The Penasco fire, on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico wiped out a population of Mexican spotted owls. The recovery plan for these owls recommended that the forest be managed to a healthier state through such matters as appropriate thinning.
We can't prevent all fires but we can influence their effects through fuels treatment. Two guidance documents that will be issued effect the endangered species handling. The fuels treatment projects can be better handled through the Endangered Species Act by two types of projects.
The first guidance improves the process by encouraging similar projects to be put together for consideration. Essentially, we batched the projects together. We find common threads and analyze those. And then those project criteria can be developed and used over and over again when there are similar effects on the species.
The second guidance document recommends that managers evaluate the net benefits of fuels treatment projects. They may have both short- and long-term impacts. The long-term net benefit can be substantial and can sustain a species. And that needs to be considered in our process. Sometimes, we let the short-term impacts of a prescribed burn, for example, counterbalance the long-term impact in improving habitat. We need to make sure we consider the long term as well.
As we seek to treat these areas, the departments will not be working alone to determine the priorities in the areas to be treated. Projects will be chosen for fuels treatment through a collaborative process that includes all stakeholders and partners. The process will include local governments, tribes and state foresters, as described in the 10-year implementation plan for the National Fire Plan.
Dense overgrown forests and rangelands have grown like a cancer. They need to be treated. Thank you.
SECRETARY VENEMAN: We'll now take your questions and we'll have availability from any of us here on the podium to answer your questions.
Q Secretary Veneman, have you already identified the first 10 projects that will be on --
SECRETARY VENEMAN: We have. And I believe they're in your handout that's available to you.
Q The Ag handout or the White House handout? I didn't see the White House handout --
SECRETARY VENEMAN: We'll get it to you. But there are five Interior Department, five Agriculture Department -- through the Forest Service.
Q Do you know the total acreage of those projects, by any chance? You said you look forward to cooperating with Congress next year, as I understand it, the significant piece they did not approve was identifying 10 million acres?
SECRETARY VENEMAN: Well, we worked with Congress to get a bipartisan agreement in the House, which unfortunately did not get completed before the end of the year. But we're going to continue to work with Congress to try to determine how we can move forward with this legislation as expeditiously as possible. We said when we established the Healthy Forest Initiative that we would work with Congress on legislation and we would work on the administrative aspect and what we could administratively and, obviously, this is one piece of the administrative aspect.
But I can't tell you exactly where the legislation is going to be. We're going to work with the Congress, with the new -- obviously, we're going to have a new chairman of the Resources Committee in the House, with the retirement of Mr. Hansen. And we'll work with the appropriate committees to craft appropriate legislation.
Q One other question, too, if I could get you to respond to some criticism. A couple environmental groups say this is an effort to cut the public out of the process -- that is, the changes to the appeals and reviews process. Another group says that by building roads into these areas that can create environmental damage, and I wonder if you could respond to those?
SECRETARY VENEMAN: Well, it's absolutely untrue that this is to cut the public out of the process. There could be nothing further from the truth. The fact of the matter is this is to provide more and better public input at the outset of the process, to work on a local basis to provide input from every level in the planning process.
We have a situation now which our Chief of the Forest Service likes to call analysis paralysis, where you make a decision and it continues to get appealed to the courts -- and that's one of the problems, is we then never get anything done. And so the buildup continues in these forests and the result is the kind of fires that we had last year.
So we absolutely believe that this is an opportunity to get as much input from the people and the local communities as possible on these decisions. Many of these projects that we're announcing are projects that are in and around communities, with buildings, with homes, where people are at risk, communities are at risk. The people have a vested interest in seeing progress made, and not seeing so much paperwork hamper the process. This is not to undermine any environmental value; it's to protect communities, people and habitat and the environment.
Q What's the process for determining the categorical exclusions? And is that process appealable somehow?
SECRETARY VENEMAN: I'm going to have the Chief just get into the details of that.
CHIEF BOSWORTH: Through the National Environmental Protection Act, the NEPA process, we have a number of categories that we can exclude projects from environmental documentation. In other words, we do analysis, but then, because we have lots and lots of information from past projects that are similar, then we will no longer do the environmental assessment or the environmental impact statement. In other words, we do analysis, but then we don't do the documentation in the EIS.
We only do that after we have lots and lots of practice at those projects. We looked at something like 3,500 projects, fuels treatment projects, and assessed those to see what kind of effects they had, and they had negligible effects. So we established then a category that will -- that would save time, basically, so that we don't have to document that in an environmental impact statement.
Q If the group out there that takes a particular project that's put in that category, do they have a chance to object to that?
CHIEF BOSWORTH: They can object -- we'll go out with rulemaking, and they'll have an opportunity to comment on it during the rulemaking.
SECRETARY VENEMAN: Let me just make one more comment on the question you asked on roads. The way this is structured, this would not allow permitting through the process we're announcing today of any permanent roads. So I just wanted to make that clear.
Q Their criticism is that even building temporary roads would cause significant environmental damage.
SECRETARY VENEMAN: Go ahead.
CHAIRMAN CONNAUGHTON: Let me make a couple technical comments. On that, the issue is if you need to get the temporary road in to get the thinning projects, you'll end up with a net gain, and the sustainability of long-term habitat you've got to get equipment in. Although many of you who were out on the trip saw that a lot of this activity can occur without constructing new roads, because the machinery is actually quite advanced and can work its way into these areas without a lot of additional work.
I also wanted to note we have this process of the thousands of projects we reviewed that the Chief mentioned by which we can make a good judgment up front through a public process, that these kinds of projects will not have a detrimental environmental impact but, in fact, will have an environmental benefit.
The guidance that we're doing then refers to projects that do require more specific analysis. So the 10 projects, for example, that you'll see in your packet, those ones don't qualify for the CE. We know that we have to do some site-specific analysis.
Now, of those 10, it may be that a subset of them, this initial analysis that we do that's streamlined, will make a determination that we have to go to a full-fledged environmental impact statement process. So we're still hitting each of the tools available to us under the National Environmental Policy Act. We'll still be working through that process. And where the law and the regulations that I oversee call for, we'll still be doing full-blown environmental impact statements; those don't go away.
Q Could you give us a sense of the scale, how much more thinning and prescribed burns on what kind of numbers of acres will be happening as a result of this? And also how many projects will be able to get exemption from various environmental reviews?
CHIEF BOSWORTH: I don't think I can give you specific numbers, because it's going to depend on the funding and whatnot. But it's our objective to be able to get more work done with the dollar that we get, and get the work done on the ground and spend the dollars on the ground, rather than spending the dollars doing the paperwork and the office stuff.
So we believe that we can increase the amount of work considerably, by maybe a third, if we can reduce the amount of paper -- paperwork.
Q So when you say increase by a third, how much more thinning does that mean? How much is going on now and how much will go on then?
CHIEF BOSWORTH: We were -- I believe this last year between the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service, we treated about 2 million acres, somewhere in that facility, for fuels. Now some of that's thinning, some of that's prescribed burning, some of that's a combination of thinning and prescribed burning. We need to increase that significantly if we're going to make a difference in the long run in terms of these catastrophic wildfires that we have.
SECRETARY NORTON: If I can put that into perspective, we have 190 million acres that are in the most fire prone category. And so these measures, while we are very pleased with the effect we believe they will have, we still need legislation, we still need a much larger effort to be able to have a significant impact in reducing the fire danger within our forests.
We still need to have, for example, in the Department of the Interior, the ability to do stewardship contracting, so that we can have public-private partnerships that will allow us to multiply our appropriated dollars and to reach additional acres.
Q Two quick questions, if I may. First of all, part of the -- one of the press releases handed out says that this would allow forest projects to move ahead without an administrative stay. Does that mean that none will be allowed? Or is there an option for no stay? Can you explain that a little, please?
SECRETARY VENEMAN: Well, again, it's changing the process so that you allow more up front input and you look at the projects that are similar to those which we have already done thousands of. Now, I will have the Chief talk specifically about the administrative process now and how it will change.
CHIEF BOSWORTH: Under the -- if it's a category of exclusion you are referring to, if we apply a categorical exclusion, then we would be able to move forward and it would not stay a project based upon appeals. What we are trying to do on these important projects is to be able to get moving forward without -- after we've done a lot of up front work with the public, getting people out on the ground, finding the common ground and implementing -- getting ready to implement the project and not have them held up through the appeals.
If we do get appeals in some cases, we may move forward with the project while we're hearing the appeal.
Q So in other words, if you have a project that has been excluded from extensive analysis because it's part of a category of things that haven't caused significant impact, you can go ahead with the project while the appeal is going on?
CHIEF BOSWORTH: That's correct.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WATSON: Right. What this addresses is not eliminating stays, but eliminating the automatic stay that used to exist at both departments, so that you could begin the project immediately. People opposed to it would still have the opportunity to bring an appeal and seek a stay, but the project would not be stayed until they obtain the stay. Right now there was a period of some 75 days at the Department of Interior where projects would not move forward until it was determined whether or not a stay had been filed or not. So that's the difference, not an elimination of that.
Q Is there a limitation on the size of those projects?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WATSON: I think what you'll see if you look at the categorical exclusion is there are a number of limitations in there. They're not directed at acreage, but they are directed at important values. No projects in wilderness areas; no projects in wilderness study areas that would impair their wilderness status; no projects in inventoried roadless areas. Projects that impact endangered species, wetlands, cultural or historical resources all would be removed from the categorical exclusion process, and either an EA or an EIS would have to be preformed.
So there's a number of protections built in there that conform to what our analysis found, that projects that are conducted according to the criteria that these 3,500 were will not have an impact on the environment, and any that touch upon some of these sensitive areas would not be allowed to proceed under the categorical exclusion.
Q What about national parks?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WATSON: National parks have been using prescribed fire and some mechanical treatment in there. There's not a specific exclusion.
Q Does anything that you're doing today affect how things work at national parks?
SECRETARY NORTON: Yes. This applies to all of the Department of Interior bureaus, which includes the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the largest area is the Bureau of Land Management.
Q What about salvage logging? Under Secretary Rey said the administration was working on some new rules to expedite salvage logging. Are those included in this initiative here today?
SECRETARY VENEMAN: No.
Q Not at all? Is that being worked on separately, then? Will we see that later this month?
CHIEF CONNAUGHTON: I don't know when you'll see it, but that's separate. It's not part of this.
Q You've identified 10 areas. How quickly could thinning start there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WATSON: Right now we have a two-day seminar that's going on in Salt Lake City, that's led by the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture's top NEPA career professionals; and then there's all the NEPA -- about 35 people from around the nation from both agencies are in attendance there. And they're learning about the categorical exclusion, working through it. And then once they leave that seminar, so to speak, they'll be fanning out to these project areas. But I think they're like the rest of us, the holidays are on the way, so --
CHAIRMAN CONNAUGHTON: Actually, let me clarify something on that. The teams are working on this template for environmental assessments. Again, it's not the categorical exclusion. These are the projects that do require some environmental analysis. That's what the teams are working on. They're going to deploy right, next week, and then early January, to work with the regional teams so that we can actually bench-test the process, see if it works, see how the stakeholders respond to it, see if we can cut some of the timelines, perhaps use some technology for once, use some computerized technology to do -- to run some of the documentation.
And the idea is that those teams will get experience very quickly, and hopefully we can get some projects moving as we get into the next fire season. Now, I know the President wants it as soon as possible, and they're going to be working very hard to live up to that. But we really think we can shorten the timeline and actually have this process deliver decisions in time to get some projects going before we get well into the next fire season. That's our goal.
But once we do those 10, we're going to revisit the template. We're actually going to provide more substance to it. You'll see right now it's fairly procedural. We'll provide some more substantive guidance to it. And then we hope to use that in hundreds of sites, again, to speed us on the way to a decision that there's no impact or to speed us on the way to a decision that we have to do a full-scale environmental impact assessment process. You know, one way or the other, but we want to get to that decision more quickly.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you, everybody.
Q Secretary Veneman, there have been reports that you might be leaving the administration. Are those true?
SECRETARY VENEMAN: No.
Q You have no plans to leave?
SECRETARY VENEMAN: No, not unless the administration ends. (Laughter.)
Q Okay, thank you.
SECRETARY VENEMAN: And hopefully that's going to be six years from now. (Laughter.)
END 3:24 P.M. EST
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