New Forest Service chief vows quick spending on economic stimulus

WASHINGTON — New Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell says he will move quickly to ensure that his agency spends its $1.15 billion share of federal economic stimulus funding.

The Forest Service has spent $643 million of its stimulus money so far, including $228 million in projects announced this month to repair forest roads and bridges in 31 states. Tidwell said even more projects should be approved in coming weeks.

“We’re focused on doing the ones that have been selected and letting the contracts so people can get back to work,” Tidwell said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “That’s our first priority.”

Tidwell said he will continue many of the policies of his predecessor, Gail Kimbell, including a focus on fighting climate change and reaching out to children to make them more aware of and comfortable with national forests.

Tidwell, 54, was named the agency’s 17th chief on Wednesday, capping a 32-year Forest Service career. He most recently supervised national forests in northern Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas — the same post Kimbell and her predecessor, Dale Bosworth, held before taking the top job.

Less than 24 hours into his new role, Tidwell faced an immediate controversy.

Wyoming’s Democratic governor wrote a scathing letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, complaining that the Forest Service has excluded Wyoming from stimulus spending.

“Forgive my pessimism, but I have my doubts that most in Washington can even find Wyoming on a map, no less understand the tremendous resource issues we face,” Gov. Dave Freudenthal wrote.

Wyoming’s forests are suffering from the same pine beetle epidemic that has swept across the West, Freudenthal said, noting that other states like Colorado have received millions in federal money to address the impacts of beetle-killed timber.

Tidwell said he was not familiar with the specifics about Wyoming but would look into the governor’s complaint.

He said he would use his experience developing a policy on roadless forests in Idaho as a model for his new job. Tidwell, the top forester in a four-state region, worked with Idaho officials, environmental groups, the timber industry, recreation enthusiasts, Indian tribes and others as the state developed a policy for control of remote, roadless forests.

Idaho was the only state exempted from a recent order by Vilsack drastically slowing down approval of new road projects in national forests.

“I have found these collaborative efforts that bring together a diverse group of interests is probably one of the best ways for us to resolve the controversial issues,” Tidwell said. “Bring folks together and let them understand each other’s values and develop relationships.”