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Forest Service's stimulus funds create questions

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| June 16, 2009 12:00 AM

U.S. Forest Service officials spoke Wednesday with county commissioners regarding stimulus funds, and the burning question was, “When?”

“The bottom line is – when is it going to occur?” commissioner John Konzen asked. “The stimulus – when is it going to hit the ground?”

Jane Cottrell, deputy forester for the Northern Region, mentioned that $120,000 has been obligated, but that was done over two months ago.

“The rest of it,” Konzen asked, “when do you think it will actually be implemented? When are you going to see the contractor have the ability to decide when he’s going to do it?”

Paul Bradford, Kootenai National Forest supervisor, and Cottrell couldn’t say for sure.

“I think you’re going to see pretty quickly about $2-2.5 million hitting the streets,” Cottrell said.

The money will come from $7.48 million that was awarded to the KNF June 2 for road maintenance and related work. The remaining projects won’t be advertised until next year, according to a handout given to commissioners.

When Konzen pushed for more specific information, Cottrell estimated the first projects would be advertised within the next month. After 30 days, the contracts will be awarded and the time frame will be up to contractors, Cottrell said.

Some funds will be disbursed through existing contracts that won’t require advertising.

“There are some big individual contracts that will take a little longer because they have to advertise 30 days,” Cottrell said. “For a lot of the projects that were turned in, it’s adding to existing instruments or contracts, so it will be faster.”

The $11 million that KNF received, plus a potential $2-3 million more for trails and recreational facilities, must be spent within two years of disbursement. Many projects, such as road work, can only be completed during warmer months.

“In our (part of the) county,” commissioner Marianne Roose said, “that on-the-ground work time is really going to narrow the window, and we’re already halfway into June.”

Cottrell mentioned the U.S. Forest Service’s difficulty in figuring out how to allot $1.5 billion as quickly and as fairly as possible with no new guidelines.

“That’s a problem we have,” Cottrell said. “We have all this money under a new act but we have no new authorities to implement the new act.”

There are four locations in the country that process U.S. Forest Service stimulus projects and decide who is awarded the contracts.

“We (KNF) need to get our package into the Denver center,” Bradford said. “From a contracting standpoint, we’ll get those in within the next week or so, so those folks can prepare the contracts.”

Cottrell said that northern Idaho and northwestern Montana forest lands “picked up the bulk” of stimulus funding because disbursement was based on foreclosure rates, unemployment rates and changes in economic situations within the county.

Bradford mentioned that while the $7.48 million in road work projects will involve the use of heavy equipment, about $3 million will go toward labor work – thinning and making slash piles.