Clinton proposes $1.6 billion for fire prevention

President Clinton has said that he will ask Congress to spend an extra $1.6 billion to reduce wildfire risk across the western United States by thinning flammable underbrush and small trees.

In his weekly radio address to the nation on 10 September Clinton blamed “one of the worst wildfire seasons in history” on a century old practice of fighting all fires, however small. “For almost 100 years, our nation pursued a policy focusing on extinguishing all wildfires,” Clinton reportedly said. “It was well intentioned, but as a result, many of our forests now have an unnatural build-up of brush and shrubs. This excessive undergrowth fuels forest fires, making them far more dangerous and difficult to control.”

Clinton announced that he was accepting the recommendations of a report recently filed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, which recommends spending almost $1.6 billion to clear excess undergrowth in the nation’s forests during the 2001fiscal year, including working with state and local governments to create thinning projects. Clinton said that the administration had recently been aggressively clearing underbrush on 2.4 million acres per year, representing a 500% increase since 1994. The additional funds would allow that effort to expand “in an environmentally sensitive way,” he said.

If Congress agrees the proposal, the wildland fire management budget will stand at $2.8 billion, including some $770 million for federal fire suppression coffers, which have been drained by this year’s wildfires, 35 of which continue to burn in nine western states. Altogether more than 6.6 million acres in the West have burned this summer, which Clinton said was the result of dry weather, frequent lightning strikes and huge amounts of flammable underbrush that have accumulated during decades of misguided forest management. A recent independent Congressional study blamed logging, which leaves behind wood debris, for an increased risk of wildfires (see related story).

The President also recently released nearly $40 million for 90 restoration projects, noting that once the fires are out, rain can trigger mudslides and dirty run-off can threaten water quality. “To help prevent further damage, we’ve dispatched more than 50 rapid-response teams to work with local communities to develop plans to repair damaged lands and protect precious water supplies,” he said.

Clinton also announced the establishment of “one-stop centres” in Idaho and Montana, the two states which were declared federal disaster areas, “so that citizens can gain quick access to assistance from unemployment aid to small business loans.”

On 13 September the federal Forest Service lobbied for the extra funds before the House Budget Committee. The Committee’s head, Mike Dombeck, has also announced that any thinning program would be tightly controlled to ensure that it does not become an excuse for renewed commercial logging. In its report Managing the Impact of Wildfires on Communities and the Environment the Forest Service estimates that under Clinton’s proposed new program, 16 million acres of brush would have to be removed over the next five years by both mechanical removal of trees and controlled burning.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie