HELENA, Mont. - The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday it will spend $30 million this year on forest restoration projects in 12 states to reduce the threat of wildfires, protect water quality and improve wildlife habitat for at-risk species.
Those first 13 projects will be the start of a multi-year initiative to improve the health of forests and watersheds on public and private lands, Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said.
With longer fire seasons in recent years burning more areas, and beetle outbreaks devastating more than 40 million acres of forests in the West, the pace and scale of restoration need to be increased, he said.
The work must extend to helping private landowners thin their trees, remove brush, protect habitat and improve watersheds along their properties, Bonnie said.
"If we only worked on our national forests, it wouldn't be enough to address this problem," he said.
Money to work with private landowners will come from the farm bill Congress passed this week, and the Forest Service will use its own funds to work on adjacent public lands.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a nonprofit that has filed several lawsuits to block logging projects in national forests in the Northern Rockies, was skeptical about the plan.
Logging won't help reduce wildfire risks or protect watersheds because areas thinned of trees allow the wind to blow through more easily, which could spread flames more quickly, executive director Mike Garrity said.
The money would be better used by helping landowners in wildland-urban interface areas remove trees and other fuels around their homes, he said.
"If they are going to go out and log around the forests, that's a complete waste of money and it's corporate welfare for the timber industry," Garrity said.
Helena National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said infrastructure protection is the first priority. Officials don't plan to thin or log every acre, but will identify areas with the highest probability of fire moving through to get rid of the heavy fuels, he said.
One of the first projects will be an $865,000 restoration of the watershed that provides most of the drinking water for Montana's capital city of Helena. City officials have feared a wildfire could spread quickly through the surrounding forest, which is littered with dead trees from a mountain pine beetle infestation.
That would threaten the water supply system, and later, sediment from the burned landscape could taint the water, Helena National Forest officials said.
Another project will involve reducing forest fuels over 30,000 acres in parts of California's San Bernardino and Riverside counties that were devastated by wildfires in 2003.
The initiative, called the Chiefs' Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership, will be run by the agriculture department's Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The effort, along with the Forest Service's Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, is part of a broader push to beef up restoration by working with local governments, landowners, environmental groups and others with a stake in the health of forests, Bonnie said.
The new initiative is part of President Barack Obama's climate action plan to cut carbon pollution and slow the effects of climate change, USDA officials said.
As carbon emissions increase, healthy forests are needed to counter those effects, Bonnie said.
Other projects include:
• Creating fuel breaks, thinning trees and improving the fire suppression infrastructure in the Middle Klamath River area of California.
• Reforesting, reducing hazardous fuels and controlling invasive species at the Mississippi River headwaters in Minnesota.
• Improving the quality of drinking water for New Hampshire residents served by private wells.
• Treating wildfire-affected areas in New Mexico to protect water quality and supply.
• Reducing forest fuels on the east face of Oregon's Elkhorn Mountains, the habitat of several species of threatened fish.
• Restoring woodlands and watersheds in western Arkansas, with the aim of doubling the conservation activity on private lands within three years.
• Restarting a postponed project to restore Mississippi's Upper Black Creek watershed, which is threatened by dumping, sewage runoff and invasive species.
• Reducing the risk of wildfire in Kentucky's Triplett Creek watershed.
• Improving water supply and outdoor recreation in West Virginia's Potomac River watershed.
• Collaborating with governments, landowners and Indian tribes to restore eight watersheds in Wisconsin that feed Lake Superior.
• Building buffers along New York's Susquehanna and Chemung rivers to stem the effects of agriculture, erosion and development.