Bush would spend more on forest fires, less on salmon recovery

By Matthew Daly
The Associated Press-
The Seattle Times


WASHINGTON President Bush is calling for increased spending for wildfire prevention, but apparently would cut spending for salmon restoration in the Northwest's Columbia River Basin.

The president's proposed budget for the next fiscal year, announced today, also includes language that some members of Congress interpreted as a call to privatize the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets power to the Northwest.

Bush's $2.2 trillion proposal for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 includes about $2.2 billion for wildfire prevention and firefighting an increase of nearly $220 million over last year's budget request. The 2002 wildfire season was one of the worst, with more than 7 million acres burned twice the 10-year average.

"For the safety of our communities and the restoration of our forests and wildlife, we have to reduce hazardous fuels in our forests," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Bush's budget would allow thinning and planned burns in about 1.1 million acres of national forests, about one-third in areas near populated areas.

The budget also would authorize $91 million an increase of $21 million for a forest legacy program that helps landowners preserve private forests.

Unlike last year, the administration did not announce a dollar figure to show how much money it is requesting for each of the 10 federal agencies charged with salmon recovery. But conservationists said they fear that last year's $506 million request could be cut by as much as $50 million.

"If this budget is as bad as we fear, it will pull the rug out from under salmon-dependent communities," said John Kober of the National Wildlife Federation. "We can save wild salmon and help the Northwest's economy at the same time, but we need leadership from the White House and Congress."

A White House official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, denied that the administration was reducing its commitment to salmon restoration. The budget includes a $3 million increase in salmon programs for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the official said.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which last year celebrated a proposed $20 million increase to $128 million for salmon restoration, would receive nearly that amount this year.

Environmentalists also complained that Bush did not include any money to help buy and protect forest land in the central Cascade mountains. The Cascades Conservation Partnership has come up with about $50 million since it was formed three years ago about $36 million in federal funding and the rest from private donors. The money has helped set aside more than 20,000 acres of forest land throughout the Pacific Northwest including nearly 4,000 acres purchased last year near Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state.

Group members had been counting on at least $10 million in Bush's budget and were stunned to see they were shut out.

"This is a real slap in the face to the citizens of Washington state," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, a partnership member. "Over 16,000 citizens have donated over $14 million to this historic effort over the last two years."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the budget plan a mixed bag. Murray hailed a proposal to spend $75 million for a light rail line from downtown Seattle to the edge of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The proposed cash infusion for Sound Transit "will help strengthen our economy, productivity and our quality of life," she said.

But Murray criticized plans to cut spending for highways and community health care centers. "The worst news is that the administration is projecting the biggest deficit in history,' she said.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal was one the White House only hinted at. In documents accompanying the budget, Bush called the BPA inefficient and said he will insist on efficiency measures "comparable to those used by private industry."

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the statement "the strongest attack on the BPA since Ronald Reagan's administration. Here we are, back to ideologues hating the BPA because it is a public entity providing cost-based power."

Administration officials denied there was any plan to privatize the power authority. Indeed, the budget proposal would raise the agency's borrowing authority by $700 million an action BPA officials have long sought to help upgrade and expand the agency's transmission system.

Still, DeFazio and other members of Congress said they would be on guard to fight any attempt at privatization.

"The Bonneville Power Administration has long played an integral role in our economy," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. "I am very concerned about the statements made by the administration. I will fight the battles necessary to keep the Northwest power system strong."

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., praised Bush's plan to spend $400 billion to strengthen and modernize Medicare. Smith said he will work to ensure that Medicare is adequately funded and includes an affordable, universal and voluntary prescription drug benefit.


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