WASHINGTON (AP) – Montana forester Gail Kimbell on Friday became the first woman to head the U.S. Forest Service. She succeeds retiring chief Dale Bosworth.

Kimbell, who supervises national forests through northern Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas, was appointed to the position by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

“Gail brings a wealth of knowledge to her new position,” Johanns said. “I’m confident she will do a terrific job as chief.”

Kimbell becomes the Forest Service’s 16th chief, responsibile for overseeing 155 national forests, 30,000 employees and a $4 billion budget.

She has Washington experience. She was a top official at the Forest Service, helping President Bush develop the “healthy forests” program he signed into law in December 2003.

The law lets companies log large, commercially valuable trees in national forests in exchange for clearing smaller, more fire-prone trees and brush. Environmentalists called it a giveaway to logging companies that supported Bush.

By the end of next year, federal officials project the new law and other logging initiatives will have resulted in more than 21.5 million acres of forest cut since 2001.

Johanns said that under Bosworth’s direction, the Forest Service achieved a fourfold increase in the amount of fire-prone trees and brush cleared from national forests. Johanns also credited Bosworth with improving the agency’s financial system.

Bosworth, a career forester who became chief in April 2001, will step down Feb. 2.

After growing up in California, Bosworth joined the agency as a forester in 1966 and climbed the ranks through a series of jobs in Washington state, Utah and Montana.

As chief, he was a key player in Bush’s program to increase timber sales and auction off oil and gas leases in roadless areas of national forests. The Clinton adminstration had put that land off-limits to commercial development.

Among the most controversial decisions has been the Bush administration’s promotion of logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest. Some of the areas the Clinton administration had tried to protect have trails and roads, but many are considered pristine havens for wildlife and waterways or are prized for their scenery and recreation.

“It’s my belief that most users want to do the right thing,” Bosworth said in 2005 about his agency’s plans to encourage off-road enthusiasts to use the forests in an environmentally friendly way.

In October, a government study blamed the administration, not lawsuits by environmentalists, for adding to the costs of logging to salvage timber from an Oregon wildfire. The administration and Republican allies had contended that lawsuits filed by environmentalists led to the increased costs.

Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/

Northern Region: http://www.fs.fed.us/r1

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