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Western governors discuss fires, tourism

By Nicholas K. Geranios

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 1 2011 7:50 a.m. MDT

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, the new chair of the Western Governors' Association, said she would push a program called "Get Out West!" that is designed to boost tourism in the region.

Gregoire was well aware of the irony, after Washington recently became the first state to eliminate its tourism office because of budget woes.

"Somehow I knew this would come up," a smiling Gregoire said at a news conference on Thursday.

The program, also designed to get kids playing outside, will be funded in Washington by private donations, she said.

"The state can no longer afford to fund the things we have done historically," said Gregoire, who succeeded Idaho Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter as chair of the group.

Budget woes were something all the governors attending the two-day annual meeting had in common this year.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said his state learned not to spend more money than it takes in.

"Don't build programs with one time money," the Republican said.

Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer said there are unlimited numbers of good ideas, but limited amounts of money.

"Somebody has got to say no," Schweitzer said, and added he did so with more than 70 vetoes this past session.

Also Thursday, governors discussed ways to improve forest health and reduce the threat of wildfires.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said one of her biggest fears when she became chief executive of the state two years ago was a devastating wildfire.

That concern came to life this year as nearly 1 million acres of Arizona burned in wildfires that included the largest such blaze in the state's history.

"One percent of the total land mass of Arizona has already burned in this fire season alone, and the season is not over yet," Brewer said.

Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Harris Sherman told governors that fires are becoming bigger and more destructive because of a combination of factors including drought, insect infestations and disease.

He said potential solutions include expensive practices like controlled burns, thinning and pest control.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, suggested that locally controlled land would be better maintained to prevent fires and called for the federal government to transfer authority.

"States and local governments are closest to the land and better suited to manage it," he said.

Hastings also said 88 percent of the land in the 12 westernmost states is under federal control. He called on the government to allow more domestic energy production, timber harvesting and grazing on those lands.

For his part, Schweitzer questioned whether states could afford to manage federal lands that had a big backlog of maintenance needs.

"I'm not sure I could turn a profit on forest land that has been managed by the federal government," the Montana governor said.

Brewer, a Republican, also said that drought is fueling the devastating fires in her region.

She noted that Arizona averages about 180,000 acres of wildfires per year. But this year the state has had 923,000 acres burn — or 1,100 square miles.

Brewer said the burned land will be susceptible to flooding during the rainy season. She called on the federal government to create a better process to allow burned timber to be salvage logged and to plant new forests.

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