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Progress Reported in Effort to Return Nation's Air Tankers to Service; $500 Million in Supplemental Firefighting Funds Included in Interior Bill

Press Release: Walden 6/4/04

WASHINGTON, DC - Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) expressed optimism yesterday that a portion of the nation's air tanker fleet may soon be returned to service. Walden's comments followed a meeting between himself, Chairman John Mica (R-FL) of the Aviation Subcommittee and representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior. The meeting was a continuation of talks that have been ongoing between the federal agencies since the decision last month to ground the air tankers over safety concerns. Western lawmakers have sought an expedited process for certifying the airworthiness of the tanker fleet in the hopes of returning airworthy aircraft to the skies in time to participate in firefighting operations during the summer fire season.

During yesterday's meeting, the FAA released criteria for private contractors to submit to the Forest Service that would certify the safety of the grounded air tankers. The Forest Service signaled that it could begin reviewing data submitted as early as Monday, June 7.

"The FAA and NTSB have moved with unprecedented speed to develop criteria for certifying the safety of the nation's grounded air tanker fleet, and I'm pleased with the progress we've made toward our goal of safely returning these tankers to service," said Walden. "Everyone involved in this process understands how critical these tankers are to the health of our forests and the safety of our rural communities."

"The progress toward returning the grounded air tankers to service this season is evidence members and the agencies are determined to address the serious concerns of western communities," said Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo.

Western lawmakers had further cause to be optimistic following news that the Fiscal Year 2005 Interior Appropriations bill will include $500 million in supplemental firefighting funds in an effort to ensure that the Forest Service and Department of the Interior have adequate firefighting funds during the summer wildfire season. This funding can be accessed, as needed, to supplement the $790 million currently being used to fund fire suppression operations. In recent years, the agencies have been forced to borrow funds from non-firefighting accounts. Such borrowing inhibits the agencies' ability to conduct land management duties unrelated to firefighting. Pombo, Walden and other members of the Resources Committee have staunchly advocated increases in firefighting funding in an effort to stop the practice of raiding other vital accounts to cover firefighting operations.

"The provision of additional firefighting funds in the Interior bill represents a tremendous victory for the West," said Walden. "We simply cannot continue the practice of looting non-firefighting accounts to fight wildfires each year, which detracts from our ability to conduct hazardous fuels reduction projects and other efforts that help prevent forest fires in the first place."

"The additional funding included in the Interior bill is yet another positive step toward returning the health of our forests," said Chairman Pombo. "The Forest Service will now be able to focus the appropriate funds on implementing the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in the coming year and producing some tangible, on the ground results."

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