Democratic News

Fires came early to the West this year, scorching nearly 2 million acres by the first day of summer – twice the acreage of the 10-year average for this time of year. Drier forests, higher temperatures, a years-long drought and more people living in fire zones have sharply raised the risk of fire in several Western states. These fires portend a dangerous summer that will keep firefighters busier than ever. Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman today wrote Budget Director Mitch Daniels, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton with questions about the Administration’s fire policy – particularly how land agencies plan to pay for soaring firefighting costs. Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, whose state is battling the biggest fire in its history, joined Bingaman in signing the letter: “We are writing to inquire about your plans to request additional emergency funds for both wildland firefighting and forest restoration. This year’s fire season is severe: twice as many acres have burned this year than at the same point in time during the 2000 fire season. With respect to firefighting, it seems clear that at the current costs of $10 million per day you are rapidly depleting your available funds of $382 million. Reports indicate that the Forest Service has now exhausted its firefighting funds and is beginning to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from other accounts to pay for firefighting. The Department of the Interior likely is not far behind. This is unacceptable. “We are strongly opposed to the business-as-usual practice of borrowing from other agency accounts to pay for firefighting, for two reasons. First, the Forest Service has a poor track record with respect to repaying accounts. During a recent Energy and Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing, we learned that the Forest Service, after borrowing millions of dollars from its hazardous fuels reduction account to pay for emergency firefighting, is not returning the funds to that account after being reimbursed by Congress for the expenses. Similarly, in 1996 GAO reported that the Forest Service borrowed $420 million from a restoration and reforestation trust fund account to pay for emergency firefighting; however, no request for a supplemental appropriation to restore this account had been submitted to Congress. “Second, we believe that the accounts that you are borrowing from are just as important to addressing the continuing risk of catastrophic wildfires as is firefighting. In order to decrease the number of catastrophic wildland fires, we need to restore our national forests and public lands through environmentally sound strategies such as forest thinning and hazardous fuels reduction. We also need to protect communities by assisting private landowners in creating defensible space around their homes adjoining national forest and public lands. Over the long term, restoration and thinning to protect homes is much less expensive than fighting fires. Restoring our lands is the preferred alternative for the environment as well because, sadly, important species habitat burns right along with the forests during a fire.” “The Fiscal Year 2002 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill currently moving through Congress provides an excellent opportunity to obtain these critical funds. When we request additional funding, we expect your cooperation to meet firefighting and restoration needs in a way that ensures that the agencies will be accountable. Given the significance of this issue, we ask a response from you by Friday, June 28.”