Audit: Feds take from fire prevention programs to fight wildfires

The Forest Service and Interior Department have borrowed so much money from other programs to fight wildfires in recent years that they actually hurt fire prevention efforts, a federal audit has found.

In the past five years, the agencies transferred more than $2.7 billion from other programs because, in their budgeting, they repeatedly underestimated how much money would be needed to pay for fire suppression, the report by the General Accounting Office said.

A fuels reduction project in New Mexico was delayed, wildfire management training courses were postponed and extra equipment could not be purchased.

The June 2 report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, came as no surprise to some members of Congress who have complained for years about insufficient wildfire funding.

"Each year we are told that the administration's budget request will meet firefighting costs," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "Yet each year the administration's budget request proves inadequate to cover those needs, resulting in the chaos of having to transfer money from one account to another to make up for the shortfall."

The report suggested the Forest Service and Interior Department improve how they estimate firefighting costs and said Congress should consider alternatives, such as setting up a reserve account.

The agencies now rely on a 10-year average of suppression costs as the basis for developing budget requests. That practice was criticized by the GAO, which said it resulted in estimates well below what was needed. The cost of fighting wildfires has exceeded appropriated funds almost every year since 1990. Last year and in 2002, wildfire suppression cost more than $1 billion.

The agencies, in written responses, agreed with the report, but the Interior Department defended the use of the 10-year average, saying it is "a reasonable and durable basis for suppression budgeting."

The department did say it is working with the Forest Service to develop a new statistical forecasting system to better predict costs.

The Forest Service agreed there are problems with using the 10-year average and has looked into other ways to estimate suppression costs. It also said the report didn't address the consequences of not making funding transfers, such as more land and homes being lost.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who was among several congressional members requesting the report, said it confirms what he suspected - "we are robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The most money transferred - $639.6 million - came from a Forest Service trust fund that collects a portion of timber sale receipts for reforestation and other projects such as fuels reduction and habitat improvement.

The report found that the Forest Service transferred $81.3 million from the wildland fire management program from 1999 through 2003. That account provides money for firefighter training, equipment purchases, fuels reduction and salaries of reserve firefighters.

The Interior Department borrowed $24.9 million from a similar program, but mostly transferred money - $514.2 billion - from construction and land acquisition programs.

In Colorado's White River National Forest last year, the government planned to remove about 150 acres of trees infested with spruce beetles. Instead, $111,000 was transferred from that project to help fight fires, and now the beetle infestation has grown to about 230 acres.

The project would now cost an extra $24,000, and the increased number of dead trees, along with dry conditions, only increase the chance of wildfires.

Not only did the transfers hurt fire prevention, but they strained relationships with states, nonprofit groups and communities, the report said. Congress reimbursed agencies about 80 percent of the money borrowed.

The Wilderness Society said the report proves the Bush administration doesn't consider wildfires a priority and that his Healthy Forests Restoration Act is just a smokescreen for forest management policies that favor the timber industry.

House subcommittees recently approved adding $2.6 billion for fighting wildfires in 2005, a near 10 percent increase over this year's levels. The bill also would create a $500 million contingency fund for both this year and next for battling the blazes.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Angie Wagner is the AP's Western regional writer, based in Las Vegas.


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