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.