- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

George W. Bush and Al Gore got into a searing firefight through surrogates yesterday over who lost the West to wildfires the worst in recent history which continue to rage out of control in 13 states.
Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a close friend of the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate, blamed the Clinton-Gore administration for diverting fire-prevention money to new federal land grabs and suggested Mr. Gore is in the thrall of the most extreme environmental groups.
In appearances on ABC's "This Week" and "Fox News Sunday," Mr. Racicot also faulted the administration for ignoring repeated warnings from the General Accounting Office that overgrown national forests were tinderboxes that had to be thinned through selective logging.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who also appeared on "This Week," accused Mr. Racicot of wanting "to let the paper companies cut down the big trees" and implied Mr. Bush was in the pocket of the logging and paper industry. Mr. Babbitt said Mr. Racicot was angling for a Cabinet post in a Bush administration.
"Patent nonsense," Mr. Racicot shot back. He said he was supporting the same form of selective forest-thinning that Mr. Babbitt supported in his home state of Arizona.
"Only the Clinton-Gore administration would try to use widespread wildfires to launch political attacks," Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan told The Washington Times. "Their attack on Governor Racicot and backhanded attack on Governor Bush are another example of this administration's shifting responsibility and blame."
Mr. Babbitt blamed the wildfires on the weather and on bad forest-management policies of past administrations. "Fire suppression policies for the last hundred years have caused a tremendous fuel buildup in these forests," he said.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, in a Fox News interview, took the same tack. "The convergence of that hot, dry weather … coupled with a policy of Congress and the administration for nearly 100 years of suppressing virtually every forest fire, has created an environment where the fuels that are available for burning are greater than they might have been 500 to 600 years ago," he said.
"These forests evolved with fire and the fire actually contributes to forest health by periodically moving through and reducing the fuel load and thinning out the small trees," Mr. Babbitt said.
That appears to be essentially what Mr. Racicot, Mr. Bush and other administration critics have been saying.
"Governor Bush supports a balanced approach on the management of our national forests," Mr. Sullivan, the Bush spokesman, said. "He believes there should be select timber harvests as part of that management and to reduce the risk of out-of-control fires."
Mr. Racicot told The Washington Times that the "Clinton administration didn't cause these fires, but their myopic environmental philosophy leads to explosive fires that destroy everything."
Idaho Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig has accused the administration of being in a "mad rush" to establish an environmental legacy and of therefore ignoring "the basics of managing our resources."
Mr. Glickman said Mr. Clinton had asked him and Mr. Babbitt to develop a new land-management and firefighting strategy.
Mr. Racicot said that report is long overdue and its implementation could have prevented some of the worst aspects of the current disaster. "It's very unfortunate," he told The Washington Times. "We could have made some progress over the last seven years had we had the plan in place."
Critics maintain that Mr. Gore is so politically beholden to environmentalists that he has fiddled with outmoded policies while the West burns. His campaign Web site boasts that he "strongly supported" the administration's barring road construction on 43 million acres of national forests.
He has sought to make it a partisan issue, saying that as president he would "fight Republican efforts to block the roadless initiative on behalf of special interests" and "dramatically" expand the roadless initiative to bar all logging, development and timber sales in these regions.
Mr. Racicot and several moderate environmental organizations maintain that more wildfire disasters can be prevented only by allowing the construction of roads to accommodate the machinery necessary for thinning millions of acres of Western forests.
Although Mr. Bush occasionally has said administration policies have exacerbated the wildfire threat, he has not taken a more vocal role to avoid appearing "opportunistic," a Bush adviser explained.
Mr. Sullivan said the "Bush campaign, unlike the Clinton-Gore administration, respects the people of Montana and other Western states where fires are raging and wants to keep partisan political attacks out of the issue of controlling these fires."
It wasn't always true, however, that politics stopped at the edge of natural disasters.
In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of Florida and Louisiana, presidential candidate Bill Clinton said he didn't want to politicize the issue, but then sniped at President Bush for the slow response to victims.
Told that Mr. Clinton had suggested an inquiry once the crisis passed, the Republican president snapped: "I don't respond to Governor Clinton on these matters. We have a national emergency here, and we're here and we're trying to get this job done."
The elder Mr. Bush went on to carry Florida by 41 percent to 39 percent that year.

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