Cabinet secretaries vow to find money to fight fires

Decisions on how to use limited federal funds may mean cuts to local programs.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMay 14, 2013 

  • VILSACK PLANS BOULDER-WHITE CLOUDS REVIEW

    Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Obama administration will work to evaluate the Boulder-White Clouds area as a possible national monument.

    Vilsack compared the process to the one used for Chimney Rock National Monument, established in September 2012 in Colorado. Both areas are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages six other national monuments.

    Chimney Rock is an area where Pueblo people lived more than 1,000 years ago and has 118 archaeological sites on 4,726 acres. Local and national groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, had pushed for its protection as a national monument for years.

    Vilsack said he will work with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, local supporters and others to determine whether the Boulder-White Clouds - a roadless area of more than 500,000 acres - deserves monument status. Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has been working for more than a decade to get 332,000 acres of the mountain ranges protected as wilderness.

    "It will be a collaborative effort," Vilsack said.

    Former Interior Secretary and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus has urged the Obama administration to use the powers of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the area. National monument protection needs only the president's signature; Congress must approve wilderness areas.

    Former Interior Secretary and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne studied the area during his time at Interior but backed off because Simpson thought he could get his wilderness bill passed in Congress.

Lance Okeson at the Boise Fire Dispatch office had a surprise visit from the secretaries of the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments Monday, and they came with bad news.

Okeson is in charge of the fuels program for the Bureau of Land Management's Boise District. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told Okeson and, later, reporters that to meet the demands of firefighting, the federal agencies will have to cut money for thinning and clearing hazardous fuels from around communities, work that reduces fire danger in the future.

"It's these kind of programs that are really taking a hit," Jewell said.

That means less money to pay to bring goats into Boise's Foothills to eat the cheatgrass and weeds that dry out early and carry flames at lightning speed across the slopes. It also means less money for cooperative programs with the city of Boise to clear fuel away from homes, Okeson said.

"We talked about how the sage grouse issue is tied to the wild-urban interface issue," Okeson said. "Resources pulled in to protect homes get pulled off of fires in sage grouse habitat."

The budget colored the briefings that fire managers gave Vilsack and Jewell at the Interagency Fire Center on Monday.

Fire starts are at a record low - mostly in the East. But the experts expect a long, hot summer across the American West, including Idaho.

The Forest Service will have 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines going into the fire season because of the across-the-board cuts Congress approved. Add more than 2 percent of other cuts forced on the agency, which manages 193 million acres, and the overall cut is more than 7 percent, Vilsack said.

Making the cuts so far into the budget year essentially makes the agencies have to cut even more in the remainder of the year, Vilsack said.

DOING MORE WITH LESS

Earlier this year, the Senate sent its stopgap budget to the House with $97 million of fire-suppression funds cut. Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, predicted that the agencies would have to make up those firefighting cuts by taking even more money from the program to reduce hazardous fuels.

Idaho Republican Jim Risch, who joined the two cabinet secretaries on Monday's tour, praised the firefighting agencies for doing well with less. But Risch, who voted for the cuts, offered little hope that the secretaries will be able to avoid the robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul tradeoffs.

"We got to accept the fact there is not going to be federal funding like there was before," Risch said.

EMERGENCY SPENDING

But in August, if more firefighting resources are needed, Risch said he and other Western lawmakers will put together a coalition to get emergency funding. The priority will go to protecting lives and property before desert habitat for sage grouse, he said.

The bird could be listed as an endangered species, if enough of its habitat burns up. And that listing - and the protections that would come with it for the bird and its habitat - could have wide-ranging economic effects across the West, including limits on energy development and grazing.

FLYING WITH SMOKEJUMPERS

On Sunday, five weeks into her tenure as Interior secretary, Jewell joined smokejumpers on a training flight. They jumped, but she stayed in the plane.

Jewell noted in her visit to Boise Fire Dispatch that firefighters from federal, state and local governments work together seamlessly "no matter what label is on their shirt."

Vilsack marveled at how well the interagency center coordinates resources around the country, including pre-positioning fire engines and other equipment near where they expect fires to start.

"If this was a circus, these people would be the juggling act," Vilsack said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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