SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Western lawmakers in Congress are furious over proposed cuts to wildland firefighting funds, including grants to help rural communities fight fires and prevent fuel buildup.
There’s also bipartisan sentiment to get rid of the Bush administration’s traditional method of determining wildfire suppression budgets. At recent Interior Department and Forest Service budget hearings for 2006, senators warned that the Bush administration’s proposed $283 million cuts — intended to shore up the nation’s deficit — could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run.
The federal agencies base funding requests to Congress on the average annual firefighting costs from the last 10 years, then later ask lawmakers for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “emergency” supplemental funds if the account is drained by a busy fire season. “The pattern we go through is to cut back on firefighting in the regular (appropriations) bills and then when fires occur, we put up all the money and somehow kid ourselves into believing this is budget discipline,” said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a member of the subcommittee that holds the Interior Department’s purse strings.
The federal fire budget’s woes stem from a difficulty in accurately forecasting the severity of the fire season before knowing how quickly mountain snowpacks will melt in spring and summer. In 2002 — the worst fire season in 50 years — 3.6 million acres had burned by late July. But by the end of the year, 7.2 million had gone up in smoke, driving federal costs to $1.6 billion.
This year, widely variable winter conditions — ranging from relentless drought in the Rocky Mountain West to flooding in parts of the Southwest — have further complicated the forecasting problem.
“In the Great Basin West, we are the driest in recorded water history and unless we get a wet spring, our forests will be increasingly vulnerable,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. Adding to the fire susceptibility of western woodlands is the infestation of bark beetles that leave broad swaths of forests dead and dry.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the Bush administration has aggressively tried to pre-empt a catastrophic 2005 fire season by thinning trees on over 12 million acres of public lands during the past four years.
With a $10 million increase in hazardous fuels reduction projects in the 2006 budget request, Norton said Interior agencies and the Forest Service hope to thin another 4 million acres by next year.
The agency is asking for about $757 million for wildland fire management — up $24 million from last year. “You have to review this carefully, because the things we are cutting are really going to come back and haunt the government,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., told Forest Service officials during a hearing last week.