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Firefighting funds could go to Katrina costs

Environmentalists and Western Democrats are criticizing a White House plan to help pay for Hurricane Katrina by eliminating a $500 million reserve fund to fight fires in heavy wildfire years.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Trying to make up for the cost of Hurricane Katrina, the White House has proposed eliminating a $500 million reserve fund to fight fires in heavy wildfire years. Environmentalists and Western Democrats criticized the plan Tuesday as shortsighted and risky.

“This fund — developed on a bipartisan basis — ensured that firefighting costs could be met,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

She said if this year’s fire season is worse than normal, the Forest Service would have to cancel other projects, such as removing dead and dying trees infested by bark beetles.

The proposal is part of a $2.3 billion package of cuts the administration proposed last Friday that includes reductions to other programs across government agencies, among them a fund for water projects and a prison literacy program. The administration also would shift $17.1 billion from Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief accounts to such hurricane needs as rebuilding damaged highways, repairing levees and fixing government buildings.

The plans still require approval from Congress.

The $500 million reserve firefighting fund was approved by Congress last year for use if the approximately $700 million budgeted annually for firefighting is depleted. That happened in 2000, 2002 and 2003, heavy wildfire years in California and the West when firefighting costs exceeded $1 billion each year. Eliminating the $500 million fund is the single biggest cut in the $2.3 billion reduction package Bush proposed.

Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the administration’s Office of Management and Budget, defended the proposal Tuesday, contending that $1.7 billion appropriated for wildland fire management in the 2006 budget year — which includes $700 million for firefighting as well as money for preparedness, hazardous fuel reduction and other programs — would be enough even without the reserve fund.

“With the 2004 and 2005 fire season having been relatively less active than normal, surplus funds sit in this account and can be rescinded without hurting the program,” Milburn said in an e-mail message.

“Restraining spending forces us to ask tough questions and make tough choices, but we can’t shy away from unpopular decisions if we hope to ever make the progress we need to make in reducing the deficit,” he said.

But Democrats and environmentalists said that if fire conditions worsen in 2006 the money will be needed.

“If you get a bad fire season and you end up borrowing money from the other programs ... it just really throws any logical management of the forest into a tailspin, and that’s why Congress created that $500 million,” said Michael Francis, director of the national forest program at the Wilderness Society.

“This proposal breaks faith with rural folks all across the West and will make it harder to find bipartisan legislative solutions in the future,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.