Colorado governor suspends permits for federal burns

DENVER - Colorado Gov. Bill Owens accused the federal Agriculture and Interior departments Thursday of acting irresponsibly when they caused a New Mexico fire, and ordered an indefinite suspension of state permits on federal prescribed burns.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Owens said a 30-day moratorium imposed by the federal government is insufficient.

''I am very concerned that your agencies are acting irresponsibly with respect to protecting the public from negative consequences caused by the use of prescribed fires,'' Owens said in a letter.

Tim Ahern, spokesman for Babbitt, called Owens' action redundant.

''We are just as concerned about the safety of the public as he is. What happened at Los Alamos should not have happened. There are procedures in place and obviously something went wrong. We're going to find out what and correct it,'' Ahern said.

A spokeswoman for Glickman said he would be happy to discuss further measures with Owens after the federal moratorium expires.

Federal land managers in Colorado said Wednesday the moratorium was moot. They said they have several prescribed burns pending, but cannot carry them out because the equipment and manpower needed to monitor those fires are in New Mexico and the time limit for prescribed burns is about to expire.

Babbitt on Thursday released results of a preliminary investigation that said the National Park Service officials who started the Los Alamos fire failed to follow proper procedures and did not have enough fire crews on hand to keep the blaze under control.

Owens said the state was forced to set up its own permit process to coordinate burns because the federal government controls 30 percent of the state's land, and the state was being held responsible for federal mistakes under the federal Clean Air Act.

Owens said federal government officials balked at complying with a new state law requiring federal agencies to submit plans for prescribed burns and alternatives because they are afraid the practice will spread to other states. Owens said he is prepared to go to court to enforce the new state law.

''I trust federal agencies will comply, but in private conversations there has been some discussion that maybe they won't,'' Owens said.

''There is concern from the federal government that if all states tried to extend the oversight we are seeking ... it would make their ability to have the 23,000 burns they had last year harder to do,'' Owens said.

The governor said he is not opposed to prescribed burns since they can eliminate dangerous fire conditions. But from now on he said the state will be looking over the federal government's shoulder.

''I expect any future federal prescribed burns in Colorado to occur only after the state Health Department has had the opportunity to examine all meteorological data upon which the federal land management agency is relying for each specific fire,'' Owens told Babbitt and Glickman.

Owens said Colorado suffered the consequences of a poorly planned federal burn in 1998 when the city of Durango exceeded federal air quality standards due to a fire set by the U.S. Forest Service. He said the health impacts from elevated levels of pollution can be severe, especially to people with health problems.

Denise Tomlin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado, said her agency has been getting permits from Colorado for 22 years and was surprised by the governor's action.

She said her agency always shares its weather information with the state, and has modified burn plans at the state's request.


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