By Keith Chu

WesCom Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The cost of fighting would engulf the U.S. Forest Service budget - leaving less money for trails, wildlife and fish - under President Bush's proposed spending plan for the agency.

Bush's 2008 budget proposal would boost firefighting funding by 21 percent to $911 million, while cutting the agency's overall budget to $4.1 billion - a 1.6 percent drop from this year and an almost 4 percent slash from 2006. Officials based the firefighting budget on the average cost to fight fires annually during the past decade.

andquot;The Forest Service has been on a pyro-death-spiral (budget-wise) for a long time,andquot; said U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River. andquot;Users are paying like they never had to before just to keep the infrastructure in place; meanwhile, the Forest Service nationwide is confronted with spiraling costs to fight forest fires.andquot;

In 1991, just 13 percent of the Forest Service budget went to fighting fires. Last year's huge firefighting bill - more than $1.4 billion - caused the big jump in this year's budget, according to the agency's budget justification.

Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh declined to comment on the budget proposal.

Bush's proposal is unlikely to pass unscathed through the Democratic-controlled Congress, but the Forest Service still may not receive a big funding boost for any of its programs, said George Behan, chief of staff for Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who heads the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee.

That committee will likely begin debating the proposal within the next two weeks, Behan said.

For Walden, who does not sit on that committee, the problem goes back to one of his most championed issues: the need for increased forest thinning and forest health projects.

andquot;The federal government has just not stepped up and supported good, advanced management in the forest,andquot; Walden said. andquot;Then we end up with these big, catastrophic fires that just suck money out of the agency.andquot;

In all, firefighting consumes about 45 percent of the Forest Service budget nationwide. Yet spending to prepare in advance for fires is slated to fall by 14 percent under the president's plan. That means fewer permanent helicopter crews, smokejumpers and support personnel.

Consolidation of support services and better allocation of resources are designed to offset the spending cut, according to the proposed budget.

The government should focus on preventing fires, not fighting them, said Tim Lillebo, the Bend, Ore.-based Eastern Oregon representative for conservation group Oregon Wild.

andquot;It makes sense to spend that money up front rather than spending half the budget afterward,andquot; Lillebo said. andquot;To me that's almost insane to spend that much to fight the fires.andquot;

One bright spot in the proposed budget, for both Walden and Dicks, is full funding of the Northwest Forest Plan - at $187 million. That would allow companies to double their timber harvest to an estimated 800 million board feet.

John Shelk, president of Prineville, Ore.-based Ochoco Lumber Co., said laws like the Endangered Species Act make timber harvests on federal land too hard to accomplish.

andquot;We've had a number of projects on both the Ochoco and the Malheur (forests) particularly, that the Forest Service has put quite a bit of money into,andquot; that are now enmeshed in legal battles, Shelk said.

Meanwhile, volunteers like Jim Davis, of Bend, have taken up some of the trail maintenance duties the Forest Service can no longer afford. Davis, a retired doctor, and a few friends have built several snowshoe trails, with Forest Service permission and funding from the Central Oregon Nordic Club.

andquot;We have to maintain these trails,andquot; said Davis, 81. andquot;We have had to do all the work and we have had to raise money to buy supplies.andquot;