Western Govs Make Fire Pact with Clinton Administration

Six Western governors have forged a political truce with the Clinton administration that could result in an additional $1.6 billion spent on fire relief for the West.

The governors of Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota set aside their differences with the administration over logging and road-building restrictions on national forests during a meeting Monday in Salt Lake City.

‘A Season from Hell’

The Clinton administration earlier this summer proposed spending $1.2 billion on firefighting, nearly half of which would replenish federal fire suppression funds. Other funds were earmarked for restoring burned lands and protecting watersheds.

But the governors said they will present a united front with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman on a plan to lobby Congress for $1.6 billion more — making a total of $2.8 billion — to help the West recover from what Babbitt called the worst fire season since 1910.

“This fire season has just been a season from hell,” Glickman said.

More than half the additional funds requested is needed to repay money already allocated for firefighting this season, leaving about $700 million for the states to implement their own prevention plans.

Long-Term Plan

The governors also agreed to work on a long-term strategy to reduce the dangers of fast-spreading wildfires.

Many of the summer’s wildfires — 31 major blazes were still burning across nine states Monday — have raged on federal lands. Western governors have long been critical of federal management of range and forest lands. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne complained Monday of “too much command-and-control from Washington, D.C.” usurping forest supervisors.

Babbitt conceded that a policy of trying to extinguish even minor wildfires had allowed dangerous levels of underbrush to accumulate with catastrophic results: More than 6.76 million acres of land have burned this year across 11 states.

More prescribed burns, Babbitt said, could contain the threat of uncontrollable fires, like the blaze that resulted in May at Los Alamos, N.M., where 47,000 acres were scorched and more than 400 families were left homeless.

“We need to get in the forest to thin out the dog-hair pines that have created this hugely explosive log forest, where the fire ladders up and explodes into the crests of trees,” Babbitt said. “We have to get the gasoline rags out, get the forest thinned out to the point where fire will lay down, stay on the ground.”

‘A Historic Day’

The group also was “lockstep in solid agreement” on wider use of prescribed burns, South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow said.

“It may be a very historic day for the West with respect to fire management,” said Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who hosted Monday’s hour-long private meeting in the state mansion.

According to him, Babbitt and Glickman quickly agreed to reimburse Western states for fighting fires on federal lands. The additional funds requested would require congressional approval.

After the meeting, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber emerged with a bruised, swollen eye, but his colleagues joked the wound wasn’t inflicted inside.

Kitzhaber — the only Democrat among the governors — got knocked by an oar on a rafting trip last week in Oregon.