Montana’s Republican representative to Congress, Rick Hill, added to the political spin on this year’s wildfires on local television last week. In an Aug. 24 interview with local NBC affiliate KECI, Hill, following Gov. Marc Racicot’s lead, intimated that the Democratic Party, led by President Clinton, can be blamed for the fires currently burning through nearly three-quarters of a million acres in Montana.
“The fire disaster in Montana is man-made,” Hill said, “and one of the men responsible is President Clinton. The present administration took money for firefighting and diverted it elsewhere.” Hill continued: “The Clinton Administration diverted millions away from accounts that were to prepare for this year’s fire season, and put it into land purchases, and into the monuments program, and that was a serious mistake.”
The accusations left local environmentalists baffled. “I don’t know where he’s coming up with this stuff,” says Alliance for The Wild Rockies director Bob Clark. “The money for fighting fires is appropriated by Congress. And the Forest Service has what amounts to a blank check to continue fighting wildfires. It’s bottomless.”
Clark feels that Hill’s comments are nothing more than business as usual for Montana’s Republicans, who have not been shy in recent weeks to assign blame for the fires to their political opponents, while simultaneously stumping for increased logging on public lands. “The irony here is that it’s very popular to protect open spaces and national forest lands,” comments Clark. “And these national monument designations are not land purchases. In every case, they are lands already owned by the public that will undergo a change in management.”
Clark cites facts gleaned from the Forest Service and the General Accounting Office that point toward logging and road-building as drains on both fire prevention and the national treasury. “In each of the last three years, the forest service’s timber sale program has cost taxpayers about $1 billion,” notes Clark. “What’s more, the forest service’s own website cites studies that show logging and road-building make fires burn hotter and faster.” Clark also observes that 75 percent of the wildfires currently burning in the state are in areas that are roaded and logged. “Fires in roadless areas are burning slower and more predictably,” Clark says.
“The one point we want to make very clear is that there are two management practices that have contributed to the current wildfire situation,” explains Clark. “One is suppression, the other is logging and road-building. Hill wants to take taxpayer dollars and put our forests into a condition that will make them ripe for more fires over the next decade.”
Rick Hill’s Washington, D.C., office did not return phone calls to the Independent. It did, however, fax clippings from the conservative Washington Times echoing Hill’s statement that the White House diverted firefighting funds to open space programs.