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Forestry's share of stimulus bill will go to jobs, fire prevention

Shovel-ready projects that will put people to work quickly while improving forest health and reducing the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires near rural communities will be the focus of federal economic stimulus money earmarked for the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Oregon.

That was the message Regional Forester Mary Wagner and BLM state director Ed Shepard gave to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, during a video conference Wednesday.

"The instruction we've been given for prioritization is to give the greatest weight to projects that will create the largest number of jobs in the shortest period of time and which will create lasting value for the American public," Shepard said.

"This is an employment opportunity outside the federal sector," Wagner stressed. "We will address our key priorities and put people back to work."

Wagner and Shepard are the top officials in Oregon and Washington for their respective agencies. Neither Wagner nor Shepard know how much of the stimulus money will be available for their agencies in Oregon, but they indicated there likely will be millions of dollars for hazardous fuels reduction, forest health improvements, habitat rehabilitation and hazard mitigation around abandoned mines.

The Forest Service will include short-term projects that could be funded as early as the end of the week and long-term projects ready to go by the end of the month, Wagner said.

The stimulus package is expected to make $1.15 billion available to the Forest Service nationwide beyond its already planned work, Wagner said, including $650 million for working on roads, trails, abandoned mines, watershed restoration and ecosystem enhancement. An additional $500 million would be earmarked for reducing wildfire threats.

Nationally, the BLM and other Department of the Interior agencies will receive funding in three areas, including $125 million for forest health and restoration, $180 million for construction of roads and bridges and deferred maintenance, and $15 million for high-priority hazardous fuels treatment, Shepard said.

"Right now, we have approximately $13 million in shovel-ready projects (in Oregon) above and beyond what our normal work plans are for the next few years," he said.

"Our prime focus is going to be on fuels reduction in critical areas of the wildland-urban interface with the majority of those lands that need treatment being in Southwest Oregon, Central and Eastern Oregon," he added.

Those projects already have cleared regulatory hurdles, he said, and most of the contracts are likely to go to small businesses, Shepard said.

"These projects would not only save jobs that are out there now, but they would restore employment to laid-off forest workers and could create new jobs," he said. "They will take large crews to accomplish the work."

Shepard expects to learn the exact allocation by the end of next week.

"I think Oregon will compete pretty well for the funds because we do have a skilled work force here," he said.

Both stressed that their agencies have reached out to other federal, state and local agencies and nongovernmental organizations for suggestions.

"We don't hold all the best ideas," Wagner said. "We want to make sure that we're inviting great opportunities for others to join with us in accomplishing important work."

Walden encouraged Wagner and Shepard to use the money to hire commercial contractors to treat areas most susceptible to catastrophic wildfire, and target resources in areas of rural Oregon with the highest unemployment rates.

He also urged that funds be used to promote forest health in areas such as the roughly 350,000-acres of bug-killed timber in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.