WASHINGTON — The U.S. Forest Service is preparing for what could be a big year for wildfires in the West by planning to divert money from state and local fire assistance to the federal budget for suppressing fires.
President Bush’s budget would increase the federal wildfire account from $690 million to $746 million, but it would eliminate $9.8 million in grants that go directly to rural fire departments and trim a state firefighting assistance program from about $79 million to $56 million. That would whittle aid to New Mexico and Arizona from more than $1 million to about $750,000.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat, questioned Forest Service officials about the cuts at an Energy Committee hearing Tuesday.
“The concern about catastrophic wildfire is greater in my state than I can remember it being because of the drought,” Bingaman said.
Mark Rey, undersecretary of Interior for Natural Resources and Environment, responded that in a tight budget year the agency had to make tough decisions to fund priorities.
“It’s very glaring that we’re going to have to budget substantially more for suppression,” Rey said.
The suppression budget is determined by an average of the actual firefighting costs over the previous 10 years.
Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, told Rey that the Forest Service had again underfunded the Valles Caldera Trust, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees the national preserve in the Jemez Mountains that used to be the Baca Ranch.
The Forest Service again asked for about $1 million, a $4 million reduction from what Domenici got Congress to approve for this year’s budget.
Energy Committee senators spent much of the hearing questioning Rey about a proposal to fund a subsidy for schools in federal timberlands by selling up to 300,000 acres of Forest Service land. Domenici said it’s going to be a hard sell, because some of the states targeted for large sales, such as Missouri, don’t receive much of the school subsidy.