Interior Secretary Gale Norton visited a wildlife refuge Friday to pitch President Bush’s request for $760 million to reduce wildfire risk by thinning national forests and rangelands.
Norton watched workers at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge torch piles of logging debris left over from mechanical thinning in the 16,700-acre sanctuary southwest of Spokane.
Funding is needed for the administration’s “Healthy Forests” law, which calls for reducing hazardous fuels that feed wildfires, and improving forest and rangeland management, she said.
“It really is such a difference when you have a forest thinned out like this one,” she said. “The bigger trees survive fires unless they’re surrounded by smaller trees.”
But environmental groups said the law passed by Congress last fall would provide only about $30 million in new money for fuels reduction and signals renewed efforts to log federal lands.
Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, a Spokane-based conservation watchdog group, said the Bush forest initiative misses the mark.
“All in all, we believe it’s yet another smokescreen for logging,” he said. Petersen said 85% of the areas near communities that are most at risk of wildfire are not federal lands.
Studies conclude that thinning and fuel reduction are most effective within 200 feet of structures, yet the bill provides no money for areas directly around buildings, Petersen said.
The bill would not have helped prevent last year’s devastating Southern California wildfires because most of the acreage that burned was neither federal land nor forested, he said.
Conservationists fear the law would allow massive clear cutting of areas where there are insect infestations, he said.
Jay Watson, wild-land fire program director for the Wilderness Society in San Francisco, said his group supports fuels reduction around communities, but objects to thinning in more remote areas.