- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2009

Congressional lawmakers Wednesday rebuked the Forest Service for spending stimulus forest firefighting money on D.C. green-jobs programs, but gave the city the money anyway.

The decision reverses a vote of the full Senate, which last month stripped the $2.8 million in wildland fire-management funds for the District, calling it a waste of critical firefighting funds.

House and Senate negotiators made the move while hammering out a final public lands spending bill. They said they didn’t want to recall the money, but in strongly worded language blasted the Forest Service for a “lack of transparency” and insisted future funds be spent solely to reduce fire threats.

But the fact that they allowed the D.C. money to be spent on jobs programs in a city with a low risk of forest fires angered lawmakers who called it an affront to Western states scorched by wildfires this year.

“Is that a lot of Washington double-speak or what?” said Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, who sponsored the Senate amendment that cut the funds in the first place. “It’s offensive they would take this position. This is wasteful spending on important money that should be going to fight wildland fires.”

In their official report, the negotiators said all future stimulus firefighting spending will have to “be devoted to activities that directly reduce fire hazards on public and private lands.” Both chambers will have to vote on the compromise bill before the week ends, because the measure also contains stopgap funding to keep the government open until December.

The Washington Times first reported that part of the $500 million in stimulus money set aside for wildland fire management was going to D.C. jobs programs. The $787 billion stimulus bill that said the firefighting money should go to forest health programs and the Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department, used the money for two D.C. programs: $90,000 for a city government summer green job corps program and $2.7 million for Washington Parks & People, a nonprofit, to start a green job corps.

House and Senate spending negotiators said the Forest Service followed the letter of the law, which included funding urban forestry, so the money shouldn’t be withdrawn. But they said that in the future all firefighting money will have to actually be aimed at reducing fire dangers.

The negotiators also demanded a full report on how the Forest Service chose the projects it spent money on.

“The conferees remain troubled by the lack of transparency and the lack of communication from the [Forest] Service and the Department of Agriculture related to the project selection process,” they wrote in a report that accompanies the final spending bill.

A spokesman for the Agriculture Department did not provide a comment, and a Forest Service spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment. The D.C. Department of the Environment, which runs the Mayor’s Green Summer Job Corps, also didn’t return a message seeking comment.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of public lands spending, said senators agreed to add back in the funding “in the interest of moving the bill forward.” The spokeswoman did not elaborate.

Another Senate aide said House negotiators balked at singling out D.C. when other cities had similar projects.

That didn’t sit well with Western lawmakers such as Rep. Rob Bishop, who called the spending “a glaring example of government waste.”

“As a Westerner, I recognize the importance of every penny that goes toward wildfire mitigation and restoration of the land,” said Mr. Bishop, Utah Republican and chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus. “I wish that those who stripped Sen. Barrosso’s language would have chosen to recognize the importance as well before these tax dollars were allowed to go to special interests.”

Washington has no national forests, and according to the National Interagency Fire Center’s definition of wildland fire - a fire that consumes undeveloped areas with sparse habitation - Washington can’t even have a wildland fire.

“This is another example of poorly spent stimulus funds. Nevada is constantly under considerable risk for wildfires, and money going to Washington, D.C., to fight forest fires, when there are no forests in D.C., makes little sense to me,” said Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican.

In other actions, the negotiators watered down language designed to free the U.S. Border Patrol from environmental rules that tie their hands on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Government Accountability Office found that environmental rules had delayed posting electronic surveillance equipment on protected public lands, and Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and Mr. Bishop had pushed for language waiving the rules.

But the House and Senate negotiators instead narrowed those waivers so that they only affect construction of border fencing, not to other Border Patrol activities.

“Decision makers working behind closed doors on last-minute changes to the legislation have decided to play politics with the safety and security of this country,” Mr. Bishop said. “These changes are very disappointing.”

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