FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 20, 2003
URGENTLY NEEDED COMMUNITY PROTECTION TREATMENTS MOTHBALLED DUE TO LACK OF FUNDING
TUCSON –The human-caused Aspen fire burning in the Santa Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona, yesterday burned through the mountaintop village of Summerhaven, destroying over 200 houses and structures. The lack of fuel-reduction treatments conducted on National Forest lands outside of Summerhaven starkly illustrates the shortcomings of the Bush Administration’s so-called “Healthy Forests Initiative,” as well as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, passed by the House of Representatives in May and currently pending before the Senate.
The Coronado National Forest, which administers the land surrounding Summerhaven, has recently attempted to implement both prescribed burn and small-diameter-thinning treatments in the vicinity of Summerhaven. These efforts have been strongly supported by both local residents and conservation groups.
The Forest Service estimates that the treatments would cost in excess of $1 million, yet was allocated far less than the amount necessary to protect the community. A Forest Service official was quoted on June 20, 2003 in the Arizona Daily Star as stating “We had an allocation of $120,000 last year. That wasn’t enough. We had to beg, borrow and steal to get $50,000 more.” Starved for funding, the Forest Service was only able to treat 200 acres last year in the vicinity of the village, prompting Summerhaven residents to circulate a petition demanding treatment of a defensible perimeter around the community. According to the schedule of proposed actions, a key Forest Service project to reduce hazardous around the community has been on hold since October, 2001 due to lack of funding.
“The facts are clear-Forest Service science shows the most effective way to protect homes is to thin small trees and brush near homes and communities,” said Todd Schulke, forest policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to get enough money to these communities as fast as possible so they have the resources to protect themselves.”
The Bush administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative,” while purporting to address the issue of fuel reduction on public lands, would perpetuate this dangerous situation by providing no funding sources for treatments and failing to focus treatments within the “wildland-urban interface” or “community protection zone.” Instead, Bush’s plan would eliminate public participation and restrict environmental laws on Forest Service lands. While the administration and many Congressional representatives have justified this focus by claiming that needed fuel reduction treatments have been hampered by appeals and lawsuits brought by conservation organizations, the Aspen fire clearly demonstrates the limiting factor on needed work is money, not environmental laws.
Recent information released by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano shows that tens of thousands of acres have been through the environmental review process but are on hold due to lack of funds to implement them. Governor Napolitano has declared some areas near communities in Arizona as ‘disaster areas,’ seeking funds to treat areas near communities at risk from fire.
“It obvious that the bottleneck in protecting communities from fire is the lack of funding, not environmentalists trying to protect old-growth forests,” stated Brian Segee, Southwest public lands director with the Center.
Though the Bush administration has not approved adequate funding to protect communities such as Summerhaven, the U.S. Forest Service continues to receive substantial sums of money from President Bush and Congress for timber sales that log large and old-growth trees in remote backcountry areas. In Arizona, logging projects are currently being planned and implemented that log rare old-growth habitat adjacent to the Grand Canyon, despite the fact that there are no human communities within 20 miles of the area.
“It is inexcusable for the Forest Service to be logging old-growth trees in remote areas when so many communities around the state are at such incredible risk from wildfire,” stated Sharon Galbreath, Director of the Southwest Forest Alliance.
Conservationists from around the country strongly support aggressive programs to protect communities from forest fires. They propose focusing a large portion of fire risk funding from the National Fire Plan on high priority areas near communities where it will do the most good.