Thursday, October 25, 2007

And make the forest turn to sand

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In what seems to be an oft repeated theme, the Bush Administration again put politics over policy. And that has had an effect on the forests of Southern California.

San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Gene Zimmerman has harsh words for D.C. regarding preparations for large-scale forest fires, and was told to shred his report on forest renewal during the drought in 2002:
Before the string of blazes that lay siege this week to nearly all of Southern California, even before the historic firestorms of 2003, then-San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Gene Zimmerman told his bosses in Washington about the problem before him.

The most populous national forest faced a mounting threat of catastrophic fire, and reducing it would cost a lot of money, he said.

On Wednesday, Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey, the nation's top fire official, said funds meant to restore forests to health have reached record levels in recent years -- and that the San Bernardino National Forest has received proportionately more money than any of the country's 155 national forests.

Yet Zimmerman, along with experts and lawmakers, points to a series of obstacles they believe have hampered more progress:
Funding for the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, unveiled by President Bush in 2003 with much fanfare, remain hundreds of millions of dollars beneath levels authorized in the legislation -- an assertion Rey disputes.
A boost in federal money for tree thinning in the San Bernardino National Forest after the 2003 fires dissipated as more resources were dedicated to the war in Iraq and Katrina relief efforts.

And back in 2002:
He said it would take a lot of money and a lot of time to return the forest to health -- $300 million at $30 million a year for 10 years, to adequately reduce the fire danger facing the tens of thousands of residents in Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, Idyllwild and other forest communities.

In the months before the October 2003 fires, Zimmerman was told during a conference call to shred the document, he said during an interview this week.

Is this always going to be the story of Right-wing governance, always an agenda in search of reality? As with No Child Left Behind, and many other initiatives touted loudly by the administration as examples of leadership, the follow-through seems to be missing:
People took notice when many of those trees became giant torches during the 2003 fires. Lewis, often joined by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was able to help secure in excess of $80 million, above and beyond the regular budget amounts. It included a large portion of a $150 million pot of money for tree removal under the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Zimmerman lauded the Forest Service's intent and competence but said the money was initially limited to cutting only dead trees, which didn't alleviate the threat in wide swaths of forest dangerously crowded with living trees. The effect, he said, was a failure to make the most of the money.

A failure that has now cost the State billions, and many residents their homes and livelihoods.
Yet GWBush parachutes in today, to give phony comfort:

After touring one partially gutted neighborhood in the path of Southern California's firestorms, President Bush noted "a lot of people are suffering," but urged those affected by the catastrophe to begin turning their attention to recovery.

Speaking at an Escondido fire command center, Bush pledged additional federal help to fight the nine blazes still burning across the region, as well as an infusion of funds to help victims and communities rebuild.

"We're not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.," he said.

Right. Focus on rebuilding, instead of what his administration should have done to prevent this catastrophe. And in terms of helping people, this is how his trip helped today:
Rancho Bernardo residents began their journey back home with a surprise today.

They were stuck in traffic for two to three hours sitting in their cars at a standstill because of President Bush's visit to their community.

Police and the CHP had blocked off Interstate 15 ramps to West Bernardo Drive, which leads to the recovery center that was opened yesterday. Cars lined up for miles on the freeway.

"I'm glad he's coming but it's unfortunate to keep us all waiting," said Joy Fleming, who lives in North Oaks.

Fed up with waiting, Barbara Gandre said she needed to drive her 87-year-old mother home to pick up medication for her 89-year-old husband.

Her mother just recovered from pneumonia in September and the family did not have masks to wear over their faces. They sat in their car with the windows rolled down because they only had a quarter tank of gas left.

"I cannot run the air conditioning or I'll run out of gas," Gandre said. "I am sick of this," she said.

Phony photo-ops are a sad reality after any tragedy, but to insure that Bush could pose for his, he insults the people who hurt the most.

(h/t Jesse & tbogg)

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