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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
JULY 15, 2002
2:00 PM
CONTACT:  Wilderness Society
Gary Kozel 707-833-1381
Forest Fires: Facts and Fiction from The Wilderness Society
 
WASHINGTON - July 15 - "The only thing that burns hotter than a wildfire in the West is the demagoguery of some politicians trying to take advantage of it." - former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams (Mont.), The New York Times (June 23, 2002)

Severe drought across the West has caused an above average number of forest fires. As the blame-game continues, the U.S. Forest Service clearly must improve its performance if it is to achieve the goal of the National Fire Plan -- prioritizing our limited resources to protect lives and homes.

Claims that Conservation Groups Delayed Fire Reduction Efforts Are Flat-Out Wrong: An August 2001 GAO report looks at projects that would directly benefit communities at risk from forest fires. It found that over 99 percent of fuel reduction projects proposed by the Forest Service for fiscal year 2001 went through without appeal. In detail, the Forest Service proposed implementing 1,671 hazardous fuel reduction projects for that year. Of these projects, only 20 (about one percent) had been appealed by ANY interested party, including recreation groups, conservationists, industry interests or individuals (1). To counter the clear and convincing numbers from the GAO report, the Forest Service issued a different report that utilized Enron-inspired accounting. For more on the Forest Service's attempt to shift the blame, see http://www.wildfirecentral.org "Forest Service Continues to Blow Smoke."

Conservationists Worked with the Western Governors Association to Produce a Long-Term Strategy Document for Dealing with the Wildfire Threat: The Western Governor's Fire Plan, developed in May of this year, represents a broad, bi-partisan agreement to place the first priority for fire policy on protecting endangered communities through science-based thinning, prescribed burns, and homeowner education. A broad range of representatives joined the Western Governors to endorse the plan, including The Wilderness Society, the Western Fire Ecology Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Idaho Conservation League, federal fire-fighting agencies, and professional foresters.

The Forest Service Is Not Prioritizing Its Current Activities to Best Protect Communities: Recently, in testimony before the U.S. Congress, the Chief of the Forest Service, Dale Bosworth, stated that the most effective means of reducing the risk of fire to western communities is through careful thinning of small diameter trees near homes and towns (2). And yet, according to the Forest Service's most recent budget overview, during fiscal year 2002 just over a third of the acres where the Forest Service planned to reduce hazardous fuels will be in and around communities. In 2003, the agency's plan is for only 55 percent of acres mitigated to be in "wildland-urban areas" (3).

Forest Service Still Has Not Identified High Risk Communities: A January 2002 GAO report noted that federal agencies have failed to identify and prioritize high-risk communities and "therefore, it is not possible to determine if the $796 million appropriated for hazardous fuel reduction in fiscal years 2001 and 2002 is targeted to the communities and other areas at highest risk of severe wildfires" (4).

Forest Service Uses Fire to Justify More Logging: An April 1999 GAO review of fire threats to western forests found that "most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter and have little or no commercial value." The same report found, however, that "forest officials told us they tend to (1) focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high fire hazards or (2) include more large, commercially valuable trees in a timber sale than are necessary to reduce accumulated fuels" (5).

The Forest Service Is Misspending Fire Fighting Funds: In October 2000, Congress provided the Forest Service with additional funding to implement the National Fire Plan. A USFS Inspector General's report from November 2001 found that the Bitterroot Forest in Montana, for example, had misspent roughly $2.5 million of that funding for projects such as commercial timber sales and permits to harvest mushrooms (6).

Federal Agencies Lack a Coordinated Management Plan, Required Seven Years Ago: A March 2002 GAO report notes that "over half of all federal land management units (1,384) still do not have fire management plans that meet the requirements of the 1995 fire management policy" (7). The report further observes that these management units have not identified high risk areas, specifically communities in the wildland-urban interface that are the most threatened by fire.

Federal Agencies Have No Standard to Measure Results: The March 2002 GAO report also notes that "although the Forest Service and Interior have received substantial additional funding, they have not yet developed performance measures to determine the extent that these additional resources have resulted in more effective fire fighting as envisioned under the National Fire Plan" (8).

Drought Remains the Main Factor in the Intensity of a Wildfire Season: This is one of the driest years ever in parts of the West. As the Washington Post noted earlier this month: "In a typical year, 15 percent of the country might be experiencing drought. Now, more than 40 percent of the country is suffering" (9). The Post article also reports on the link between drought and the largest fires so far this year: "This spring was the driest in 107 years of data-gathering in Colorado, and the second-driest in Arizona and Southern California."

For more information: Visit the specially designed Web site http://www.wildfirecentral.org. Wilderness Society staff members who can help include Greg Aplet (303-650-5818, ext. 104), Suzanne Jones (303-650-5818, ext. 102), Jay Watson (415-518-2604), Bob Ekey (406-586-1600), and Craig Gehrke (208-343-8153).

Notes:
(1) General Accounting Office, "Fuel Reduction Projects." GAO-01-1114R. August 31, 2001.
(2) Dale Bosworth, Testimony before House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, June 12, 2002.
(3) USDA Forest Service, "FY 2003 President's Budget Overview," page B-13. February 4, 2002.
(4) General Accounting Office, "Severe Wildland Fires." GAO-02-259, page 4. January 2002.
(5) General Accounting Office, "Western National Forests." GAO/RCED-99-65, page 43. April 1999.
(6) USDA, Forest Service Inspector General, "Forest Service National Fire Plan Implementation." Report No. 08601-26-F. November 2001.
(7) General Accounting Office, "Wildland Fire Management." GAO-02-158, page 2. March 2002.
(8) Ibid, pages 3-4.
(9) Washington Post, "The Nation's Other, Slower Burn." Page A1. July 3, 2002.

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