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Washington D.C. - A group of Senators announced at a news conference this morning a new effort to develop a comprehensive national strategy to reduce the threat of forest fires and address the troubling forest health conditions plaguing our federal forests.

Wyoming's Senate delegation was joined at the conference by Senators Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska., Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., Gordon Smith, R-Ore., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska., Chris Bond, R-Mo., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Senator Blanche Lincoln D-Ark., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, were not present at the news conference, but are lending their support.

Thomas and Enzi said that forest management practices over the last few years have allowed fuel for wildfires to build up in the forests. The danger of forest fires is intensified by years of drought.

"We must protect our natural resources before they go up in smoke and are lost forever," Thomas said. "Taking preventative measures now, and reducing the amount of timber susceptible to fire, will be the key to insuring that we save our forests. Working with my western colleagues, I am confident that we will be able to reshape our national forests and rangelands to preserve the heritage of the west and the vitality of our land. Now is the time to act to save these public lands for future generations."

"When dry conditions combine with the dense fuel loads that exist in our national forest system we get a fire season that sets new records for intensity, severity and extent." said Enzi. "These fires have cost us renewable resources and critical habitat and have caused economic harm. They have also cost the taxpayers a lot of money. The price of preventative forest grooming and management is far less than the price of fighting these infernos. We can reduce the destructive force of potentially catastrophic forest fires. We owe it to our communities and forests to do what we can to become good stewards."

Thomas and Enzi said the paralysis of the administrative system has resulted in too many examples where we watched forests destroyed by insects and disease, only to be finished off by fires. On the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, 600,000 acres of federal forested lands have been lost to insects in the last decade, yet the federal land managers have been unable to respond. Parts of the Black Hills of South Dakota are now released to forestry under the Emergency Supplemental.

The Senators said this is an important action for the Black Hills and that if it can happen in South Dakota it should happen in all of the west. Senator Daschle should not confine these practices only to his state.

The bipartisan group issued the following statement at the conference:

"Much of America is a vast, dry tinderbox just waiting to explode. Federal land managers tell us that there is more land than in all of Texas at high risk of catastrophic fires unless something can be done to remove the dangerous buildup of fuels. We have struggled to deal with the federal forest health issues for the last decade to no avail. That simply must change.

"We are on pace for a record fire season this year. As of yesterday we have burned an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. We've burned enough land to leave a 2 1/3 mile-wide strip of land from the U.S. Capitol to Los Angeles. More than 1,800 homes and buildings have gone up in smoke and the families of 15 brave firefighters have lost a loved one. But today, we still face at least two more months of fire season.

"The Forest Service has spent more than $700 million fighting these fires and will spend hundreds of millions more in fire rehabilitation costs. This will be the second time in three years that the U.S. taxpayer will be expected to pay more than a billion dollars just fighting fires, with little or no progress made on the problem. We can no longer allow the administrative processes to grind forest health management to a halt. We must deal with this problem and take an aggressive proactive approach to fire and forest management.

"We will build a bipartisan coalition of Senators and propose legislation to allow management in the most important areas. We intend to protect the wildland-urban interface and municipal watersheds to the maximum extent possible. We also want to reduce fuels in high-risk areas.

"We expect to deal with this problem using an ecosystem approach, rather than attempting to create safety strips around our rural communities. We have seen fires run 20 miles in a day. Clearly, the concept of safe zones around homes has become an anachronism.

"Without active management we will be asking ourselves in a few short years where our forests have gone. As a group we have decided we are not going to wait to see what will happen – to see how many bad fire years we can accumulate before our forests are destroyed.

"We have directed our staffs to develop a bipartisan solution to resolve these issues, to enable our federal land managers to correct these problems. We will be taking action this September and we urge all of our colleagues to join this bipartisan effort."