Western senators want nearly $1 billion in firefighting funds

In what is sure to incite environmentalists and possibly the Bush White House, a bipartisan group of Western senators announced their intentions Thursday to bring a plan to the Senate floor in September to help curb forest fires as well as appropriate nearly $1 billion to help pay for this season's firefighting efforts.

"We mean business. We're going to get a solution," Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said.

The group said staff would be working over the recess to help come up with a forest management plan that would include thinning and other fuel-reduction initiatives. They have said this would help prevent forest fires, but environmentalists have opposed these initiatives due to concerns for species protection and federal land use questions.

A draft proposal was circulated Wednesday by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the chairman and ranking member of a key forestry subcommittee. Senators said this season's record fire loss-already, 4 million acres and more than 1,800 homes have been torched-should help spur them to victory in the fall.

"As we stand here, the forests of America are burning," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said.

A member of the Appropriations Committee, Domenici said the group would most likely attach the money to the 2003 Interior appropriations bill, which was supposed to be considered on the floor this week but was delayed.

Domenici said the final numbers had not been determined, but that the group was likely to ask for between $900 million and $1.1 billion to help replenish accounts from which Interior has had to borrow to help pay for firefighting. However, he did not indicate whether those funds would be declared a fiscal 2002 emergency or extra money for fiscal 2003.

The House of Representatives has already acted on half of this issue. While the 2003 Interior spending bill does not include forest management language at the scope the senators are proposing, it does include $700 million in fiscal 2002 emergency funds for firefighting.

The administration has been cool to efforts to increase funds for firefighting so far and actively opposed the inclusion of money in the recently passed fiscal year 2002 supplemental apropriations bill, noting that Interior has sufficient borrowing authority to deal with the crisis.

But appropriators say the money is being borrowed from land acquisition and other vital accounts that must be reimbursed.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Ted Stevens,R-Alaska, said today that the money was "absolutely needed" and would work to see it included in an appropriations measure.

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