- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

A House subcommittee will hold hearings next month to determine why a Bureau of Land Management funding request to prevent forest fires, now blazing through the West, went instead to President Clinton's lands legacy initiative and new national monuments.
Montana's sole congressman, Republican Rick Hill, requested the hearing yesterday after The Washington Times reported millions of dollars were slashed from the federal firefighting agency's budget request.
Mr. Hill said the administration's "misplaced priorities have exacerbated" this year's record-setting forest fire season. Montana has been hardest hit, with 30 fires covering 630,000 acres.
"Clinton and [Vice President Al] Gore have taken many steps to ensure funding for their lands legacy initiative, but it now looks like their real legacy will be the historic fires of 2000," Mr. Hill said.
Doug Crandall, chief of staff for the House subcommittee on forest resources and forest health, said the panel has agreed to Mr. Hill's request and will hold a hearing after Congress members return from their August recess.
The lands legacy initiative is Mr. Clinton's conservation effort to purchase land and preserve it as open green space. Mr. Clinton also has declared nearly a dozen new national monuments during his two terms in office.
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.
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.
Mr. Clinton recently announced $150 million in emergency funding for firefighting efforts.
"We could have all the preparation in the world, but there is no way of knowing we would have this kind of year," said John Wright, Interior Department spokesman.
The National Interagency Fire Center yesterday reported 83 fires burning in 10 Western states and Florida, consuming 1.3 million acres. Wildfires have burned 5.5 million acres this year, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people. Eleven persons have died in the fires, nine of them firefighters.
The denied preparedness funds would have paid for training and essential equipment such as tanker trucks and shovels.
"We're in the middle of the fire season, and we don't have the basic assets to fight the fires that are overwhelming us," said Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, where more than 500,000 acres of forests are on fire.
"We should have had more people prepared and trained, but in their mad rush to an environmental legacy, this administration has ignored the basics of managing our resources," Mr. Craig said.
Les Rosenkrance, former director of the National Interagency Fire Center, may be called upon to testify at the hearing about his January warning to Bureau of Land Management officials that the low level of funding for wild-land fire prevention would impair the agency's ability to prepare for the current fire season.
"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.
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."
Mr. Hill spent the weekend touring fire sites throughout central and western Montana, where he said a lack of resources is having a substantial impact on firefighters' ability to combat the wildfires.
"I've heard some shocking reports from the people on the front lines, stories of hotshot crews forced to sit waiting in buses because commanders weren't available to set up command and control centers," he said.
Mr. Hill also heard concerns from his constituents that federal employees were interfering with private landowners' efforts to protect their property from the fires.
"There is a whole host of troubling reports on the lack of preparation for, and the execution of, fire suppression, from misallocated resources to poor command structure to possibly illegal interference with private landowners," Mr. Hill said.
"Although many factors contributed to this fire season, there are many things that should have been done differently, and we need to get answers to some tough questions," he said.
The same House subcommittee last year held a hearing on the disastrous Florida wildfires of 1998.
Chairman Helen Chenoweth-Hage, Idaho Republican, said the panel discovered then that federal firefighters could barely muster the resources to fight two complex fire systems one in Idaho and the other in Florida at the same time.
"It is unfortunate that this sudden concern has waited to emerge until after our lands are burning," Mrs. Chenoweth-Hage said.

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