House, Senate Agree on Fire Funding

Congressional negotiators agreed Monday to spend almost $3 billion in the coming year to combat and prevent wildfires, making history's largest one-time firefighting allocation as a series of devastating blazes tore through California (search).

The firefighting money includes $289 million for suppression, $11 million to cut down trees in overgrown or disease-ridden forests to reduce fire threats and $9 million in state and community fire assistance.

It also repays $400 million that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (search) borrowed from other programs to battle blazes this summer.

Rep. Norm Dicks (search), D-Wash., said such borrowing can devastate forest programs important to the states, and it is time for his colleagues to "find a responsible funding mechanism" for paying firefighting costs.

The firefighting money was part of $20.2 billion in spending on national parks, forests, public lands and Indian programs approved Monday night by House and Senate negotiators.

The House is expected to approve the legislation on Wednesday.

Wind-driven wildfires roaring through the hills of Southern California have killed at least 13 people, burned 400,000 acres, destroyed at least 1,100 homes and threatened 30,000 more.

The fires have torn through stretches of forest that were turned into stands of dry, dead trees by a bark beetle infestation.

So far this year, more than 3.3 million acres have burned, predominantly in the West.

The bill dropped a bipartisan compromise provision in the House bill that would have prevented the Interior Department from using a Civil War-era law to turn over ownership of disputed roads and trails across federal lands.

Environmentalists fear the department will allow states and counties to lay claim to dirt tracks, pave them and make it impossible to protect the lands they traverse, including national parks, forests and wilderness areas.

There are thousands of miles of disputed roads in states like California, Utah and Colorado.

Other provisions of the compromise bill:

-- Would prevent the Forest Service from spending any more than $5 million on its efforts to replace federal employees with private-sector workers. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the Forest Service already wasted millions on its outsourcing initiative.

The House bill would have prohibited any privatization studies, but President Bush threatened to veto the bill if that language was included.

-- Prohibit the Interior Department from starting a court-ordered accounting of how much the government owes American Indian landowners suing the government for squandering oil, gas, timber and grazing royalties for more than a century.

The department has estimated an accounting could cost nearly $3 billion and take 10 years to complete. The language prevents Interior from starting the accounting for one year, or until Congress defines an amount of time and methods acceptable for the accounting.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said American Indian landowners are dying while waiting for money that is owed them, but putting off the accounting for a year while seeking a settlement to the Indian lawsuit makes sense.