SACRAMENTO -- California officials accused the Bush administration Thursday of
ignoring urgent pleas months ago for emergency help to remove beetle-infested
trees that experts warned could fuel a catastrophic Southern California fire.
The U.S. Senate passed controversial legislation Thursday allowing the
thinning of forests across the West, and another debate erupted over whether
dire warnings about a bark beetle infestation were ignored in Washington. In
April, Gov. Gray Davis requested $430 million to remove unhealthy trees on 415,
000 acres of forest, but the request for emergency funds went unanswered until
last week -- and then was denied.
"There was a reason the governor requested the declaration,'' said Davis
spokesman Steve Maviglio. "And I'm sure there are a lot of families without
homes that are disappointed it wasn't approved.''
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, speaking in the Senate during Thursday's
debate on the "Healthy Forests'' bill, complained that President Bush had
failed to act on the state's request for help and that now Californians were
"We named three of the four counties that are up in smoke, and we begged
him to declare a disaster, we begged him,'' Boxer said before the bill passed
80-14. "We saw this coming a mile away.''
Bark beetles' damage
For more than a year, California officials have fretted about an
infestation of native beetles that drill into trees, mostly pine and fir. They
feast on bark and carry a fungus that blocks a tree's vascular system from
carrying water. Healthy trees normally can reject the beetles, but the bugs
have thrived because a four-year drought has weakened hundreds of thousands of
trees in Southern California, leaving them brittle tinder.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had rejected the April
emergency request because it was clear the Department of Agriculture, which
manages the U.S. Forest Service, was working on the problem and diverting
money from other programs to tackle it. In addition, they said, $3.3 million
originally designated for seismic safety was diverted in June to tackle the
beetle problem in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
"It's somewhat disingenuous to suggest there was no federal assistance,
because in fact there was,'' said Chad Kolton, spokesman for FEMA.
The Davis administration released an April 16 letter sent to Bush warning
that the bark beetle infestation was threatening severe fires in three
counties: Riverside, San Diego and San Bernardino. Davis warned that 75,000
residents of mountain communities were threatened. He requested $300 million
from the U.S. Forest Service and $130 million from a FEMA account of unused
money set aside from previous disasters.
"This situation is of such severity and magnitude that effective response
is beyond the capabilities of the state,'' Davis said in April, a month after
he declared three counties in a state of emergency because of the infestation
and the potential for major wildfires fueled by Santa Ana winds.
Eight days later, a bipartisan group of California lawmakers pleaded with
federal authorities to approve Davis' request, saying "this infestation has
created a tinder box of such magnitude that loss of life and resources would
be incomprehensible should fire break out." The letter was signed by Boxer,
and Republican Reps. Mary Bono of Palm Springs, Jerry Lewis of Redlands (San
Bernardino County), Darrell Issa of Vista (San Diego County), David Dreier of
San Dimas (Los Angeles County) and Duncan Hunter of Alpine (San Diego County),
among others. Hunter's home was destroyed in the recent fire.
Bono told Gannett News Service on Wednesday, as fires raged across
Southern California, that FEMA "should have helped us. There has got to be egg
on their face today.'' But her chief of staff, Frank Cullen, told The
Chronicle that Bono felt FEMA "may be getting a bad rap." There is
considerable debate, he said, over whether FEMA should use its money to head
off potential catastrophes rather than responding to current disasters.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who also signed the letter, had been
warning Congress and federal authorities for months about the bark beetle
problem. Along with Lewis, she helped secure $30 million to combat the
infestation -- but approval came only last month. Another $10 million was
added Monday in emergency appropriations as the largest fire in modern
California history raged.
Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Feinstein, said "we have not gotten
strong support from Congress in the past'' to deal with the situation. The
Senate in July approved $25 million to battle the beetle, but the money was
stripped from the budget by a conference committee.
"...Congress has been faced with record deficits, and it's very tough to
get money for even emergency issues,'' Gantman said, "and sometimes in
Congress there is a reluctance to give money to California.''
An estimated 1 million trees have been killed because of the beetle, but
it's unclear how much of the current fire has been exacerbated by beetle-
killed trees. State Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte, R-Ranch Cucamonga,
said the fire in his district most likely would have raged even without the
beetle infestation's killing trees.
But he said the four-year drought, the beetles and the lack of forest-
thinning work in mountain communities nevertheless made the problem worse. He
likened the situation to pneumonia -- survivable in the young but deadly to
"That said, if we had gotten more money quicker,'' Brulte said, "we could
have taken out a lot more trees.''
Forest Service criticized
The Forest Service has been criticized for devoting too much of its
hazardous fuels reduction money to Northern California rather than to the
forests of Southern California. The agency had initially proposed just $2
million this past year to treat bug-killed trees in the San Bernardino
But as the bark beetle crisis worsened, with an estimated 350,000 bug-
killed acres as of August in the San Bernardino forest, California's regional
forester Jack Blackwell boosted funding to $12 million by persuading other
forest supervisors around the state to give up money to address the threat of
a catastrophe there, according to spokesman Matt Mathes.
Environmentalists have accused the administration and House Republican
leaders of using the current fires to win support for their legislation that
aims to increase logging throughout the forest. And the Senate rejected an
amendment that would have funneled more money to fire protection efforts in
forest areas closest to communities.
But supporters of the legislation are looking to the Southern California
fires as proof that forests need to be thinned.
During the debate over Healthy Forests, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, took
issue with Boxer's comments that Bush ignored the problem, saying she and
other lawmakers had repeatedly opposed legislation to speed thinning of
forests, including those hard-hit by the bark beetle.
"Forest scientists not a year ago, five years ago were pleading with us
to create activity in our forest and in the San Bernardino (forest) to stop a
catastrophic fire that was going to happen some day,'' Craig said. "And yet
this Senate and, my guess is, the senator from California's vote denied'' it.
Boxer shot back that she had often supported measures to removed beetle-
infested trees, but not measures that "say the only way to have a healthy
forest is to cut down every tree, particularly old growth.''
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle