CONTENTS AUGUST 23, 2000
MONEY TO FIGHT FOREST FIRES WAS DIVERTED
by Audrey Hudson © 8/22/00 THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Money to prevent forest fires now ravaging the West went instead to President Clinton's prized lands legacy initiative and to his new national monuments.
Congressional and Interior Department aides confirmed the White House cut the Interior Department's request of $322 million for fire preparedness, or prevention, to $305 million for this year. At the same time, the White House increased its budget request for land acquisitions from $15 million to $49 million.
"Their priorities are using the money for land acquisition and a lot of different things, like building a visitor center at a new monument," said Les Rosenkrance, former director of the National Interagency Fire Center.
The lands legacy initiative is Mr. Clinton's conservation effort to purchase land and preserve it as open space. Mr. Clinton also has declared nearly a dozen new national monuments during his two terms in office.
Documents obtained by The Washington Times show an even greater cut proposed for next year's firefighting season. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) requested $400 million, which the White House slashed to $297 million in its 2001 budget request -less than current funding.
At the same time, the White House increased the agency's land acquisition fund from $49 million to $60 million.
This summer's record-breaking fire season has produced nearly 69,000 fires, which have burned 5.5 million acres of land in more than a dozen Western states and Florida. The 10-year average of acreage burned by Aug. 20 is 2.5 million acres destroyed in 58,000 fires.
"There is another part of the story, and that is the money is there, and can be reprogrammed if we need to," said Interior Department spokesman John Wright, adding that Mr. Clinton recently released $150 million for firefighting from an emergency contingency fund established by Congress.
"This administration has seen fit to make sure the money is there, and Congress aided in that endeavor," Mr. Wright said. "It's not about the money, it's not about the budget, it's about the worst fire season we have ever had in the last century."
Mr. Rosenkrance warned BLM officials in a January memo that funding cuts for wild-land fire prevention would impair the agency's ability to prepare for the fire season.
He said the agency has the prerogative to fund the land acquisitions and national monument improvements, "but my argument is these programs don't put the public at risk. By curtailing preparedness projects like in this budget, you put people at risk."
An August 1999 report by the General Accounting Office credits the BLM with an efficient fire-control program, but warned that continued underfunding weakened fire-prevention activities.
"Should calamity strike in the form of being unprepared for a severe fire season that results in injuries or deaths among fire personnel, the agencies will be held accountable," Mr. Rosenkrance said in the memo.
Eight fatalities have been recorded this fire season, including a helicopter pilot who was killed in a crash Aug. 13 while making water drops on a Nevada wildfire.
"Unfortunately, it did play out," Mr. Rosenkrance said of his memo's warning.
The budget cuts this year are "so extensive, and by dropping below that, they're catching a lot less fires than they could have," said Mr. Rosenkrance, who retired in April.
Firefighters yesterday battled 98 fires in 11 states covering 1.3 million acres - the largest in Montana and Idaho.
In Yellowstone National Park, six fires are burning on more than 6,000 acres and the south entrance to the park remains closed. Lack of resources and the safety risk to firefighters are restricting park crews to battling only one of the blazes, which covers 3,200 acres.
Gov. Marc Racicot declared Montana a disaster area last week, and ordered evacuations in parts of the state. More than 365,000 acres, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles, have burned there, including 169 buildings and more than 50 houses.
Thousands of firefighters have been called in to fight the Western fires, plus 500 soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, a battalion of Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and firefighters from Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
This article was mailed from The Washington Times.