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Budget cuts may dampen fire mitigation

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Wildland fire management programs could lose as much as $283 million nationwide under President George W. Bush's proposed fiscal year 2006 federal budget, according to an analysis of the budget conducted by the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the proposed cut to the Forest Service budget would be slightly smaller, around $277.2 million, but that much of that reduction actually was a result of shifting money from a "fuel reduction" program under Wildland Fire Management to the National Forest System portion of the budget.

Ana Unruh Cohen, a spokesperson for the Center for American Progress, said the budget shifting was kind of "shell game."

The Forest Service's own budget analysis indicates a total of $684.2 million in proposed cuts to the Wildland Fire Management program (a figure that includes a proposed reduction of more than $425 million in supplemental and emergency funding) would be countered by just $258.4 million in proposed funding increases to the National Forest System account.

Whatever the case, cuts to wildland fire management programs would hit state and volunteer fire assistance and forest health activities on federal, state and private lands, the center's analysis said.

That includes in Alaska, which got $6.2 million in federal aid for various fire mitigation efforts last year alone, some $2.1 million of which was spent in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, according to Sen. Ted Stevens' office.

But even as the Bush administration proposes cutting Forest Service wildfire programs in its effort to reduce the federal deficit, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Feb. 17 urges renewed effort on the part of the Agriculture and Interior departments to provide Congress with a detailed plan for completing a cohesive strategy for addressing wildland fire problems. Implementing that strategy likely is to need more money, according to a GAO official.

Among other things, the GAO report noted the increasing threat to communities and ecosystems posed by wildland fires, which the agency reported on five years ago, continues to grow today.

According to Robin M. Nazzaro, director of the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment section, the average number of acres burned annually from 2000 through 2003 nationwide was 56 percent greater than the average amount burned annually during the 1990s.

David Bixler, the section's assistant director, said Tuesday the GAO report requests three things. Completing a data modeling system known as LANDFIRE, completing research and updating fire management plans, and determining the best options for fuel reduction and the funding necessary to accomplish that goal.

A team of Forest Service and Interior Department experts in 2002 set about estimating the funds needed to implement eight different fuel reduction options for protecting communities and ecosystems nationwide over the next century. That team concluded that reducing the risks "could require an approximate tripling of current fuel reduction funding (then abut $400 million a year) to about $1.4 billion for an initial period of a few years," the report GAO said.

Noting the administration's proposed budget cut, Bixler said, "Any kind of cut definitely would impact their (the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior) ability to get this under control."

The president's spending proposal only indicates how next year's budget might begin taking shape. It is a long way from its final form, said Courtney Schikora, Stevens press secretary.

Congress will take into account the president's budgetary wishes, she said, and there likely would be cuts to various programs in the final budget document. However, Congress also is likely to mold the spending plan into a shape different from that envisioned by the administration.

"Members of Congress and members of the community at large have other priorities than the president," Schikora said, adding that in an address Feb. 18, Stevens said the president's budget was something lawmakers might not be able to meet.

If Congress believes certain programs should be funded, the president's cuts might not survive, she said.

Stevens' office has fought to keep funding for state wildland fire programs in the budgets of Interior and Agriculture, including programs to combat the dangers posed by the spruce bark beetle infestation on the Kenai Peninsula.

"We understand the local need to mitigate fires that someone at (Interior) may not," she said.

Aside from federal dollars spent on fighting fires, the borough has received at least $11.6 million in federal grants for fire management and prevention programs over the past five years, including nearly $7.5 million in 2000 to complete work outlined in the Spruce Bark Beetle Action Plan and to fund reforestation efforts by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

That same year, the borough received $2 million to implement the Spruce Bark Beetle Hazard Mitigation Program.

While calling for continued efforts to develop a nationwide cohesive strategy to address wildland fire issues, the GAO report did praise what it called "important progress" made by the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture over the past five years in responding to wildland fires and promoting and funding preparedness, suppression and fuel-reduction programs on federal lands.

In addition, the agencies had begun improving data and research on wildland fire problems, made progress on developing fire management plans that address fire threats at the local level and in improving interagency cooperation with nonfederal partners, GAO said.

Wildland fires last year consumed roughly 6.52 million acres across the state, a record in Alaska. Some 7,863 acres burned on the Kenai Peninsula, he said.



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