Clinton Proposes Billions to Reduce Wildfire Risk

By Cat Lazaroff

NEW YORK, New York, September 11, 2000 (ENS) - President Bill Clinton is proposing to spend an extra $1.6 billion to reduce wildfire risk across the western United States by thinning flammable underbrush and small trees.

wildfire

Wildfires burn millions of acres in national forests each year (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"This year our nation is experiencing one of the worst wildfire seasons in memory," said Clinton in his weekly Saturday radio address. "Today I want to talk with you about important new steps we're taking to help communities recover and to ease the threat of fires in the years ahead."

Clinton said he directed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to prepare a report outlining a strategy to help communities recover from these fires, and to reduce future fire risks.

"Today I'm accepting the recommendations contained in this report and announcing the first steps we're taking to implement them," said Clinton.

Clinton said the century old practice of aggressive fire suppression has left "an unnatural buildup of brush and shrubs," in national forests and other public lands. "This excessive undergrowth fuels forest fires, making them far more dangerous and difficult to control," Clinton said.

Based on Babbitt and Glickmanís report, the Clinton administration plans to begin taking steps immediately to thin out the underbrush, including working with state and local governments to create thinning projects.

In addition, Clinton is asking Congress to increase the wildland fire management budget by almost $1.6 billion, to a total of $2.8 billion. That figure includes about $770 million for federal fire suppression coffers, which have been drained by the record number and extent of wildfires this year.

thinning

Environmentalists argue that many forest thinning projects, like this one at the Fort Valley timber sale in northern Arizona, look too much like commercial logging (Photo courtesy Martos Hoffman, Native Forest Network)
On Wednesday, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Mike Dombeck will lobby for those funds before the House Budget Committee at a hearing on "Controlling Wildfires in the Future: What Strategies and Resources are Needed."

At a wilderness conference on Saturday in Missoula, Montana, Dombeck said any thinning program "is going to be very, very tightly controlled," to ensure that it does not become an excuse for renewed commercial logging.

Clinton said the goal would be to reduce fire risk "in an environmentally sensitive way, particularly in those areas at greatest risk of wildfire."

Later this week, Secretaries Babbitt and Glickman will meet with Western state governors in Denver, Colorado to discuss cooperative efforts to begin removing brush and small trees.

Both mechanical removal of trees and controlled burns will be used in these efforts, said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Richard Rominger. "We're planning to increase both, but the mechanical clearing would be increased more than the set fires," said Rominger.

This year, the USFS will thin 2.4 million acres of national forest land. So far, there are no official estimates of how much that figure would increase under Clintonís proposed new program, but a draft USFS report calls for removing 16 million acres of brush over the next five years.

Hi Meadow

President Clinton said keeping people and their homes safe remains the government's top fire management priority (Photo courtesy Federal Emergency Management Agency)
Clinton emphasized that "saving lives and property is, and will remain, priority one." He pledged to continue supporting ongoing firefighting efforts, and said the government has dispatched more than 50 rapid response teams to work with local communities to develop plans to repair damaged lands and protect water supplies from post-fire erosion.

The federal government has released almost $40 million for 90 restoration projects throughout the West, Clinton said.

"We'll also soon establish one-stop centers in Idaho and Montana, so that citizens can gain quick access to assistance from unemployment aid to small business loans," said Clinton. "We want to make sure the help gets to those who need it right away."