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In the Crossfire

Burning issue: Who's to blame for fires?

(CNN) -- The wildfires in Colorado and Arizona have created a lot of political heat. Why are some lawmakers accusing environmentalists of being responsible for the severity of the fires? Joining "Crossfire" hosts James Carville and Robert Novak to answer that are Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity and Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colorado.

NOVAK: Mr. Suckling, let me give you a startling statistic. There used to be 36 to 81 trees -- in Arizona where these fires are going on -- per acre. Now, there are 1,801. Many of them started as little trees because the environmentalists won't let them be chopped down. You have a created a holocaust, haven't you?

SUCKLING: Well, the interesting statistic is that those trees that were there in smaller numbers before were all old growth trees. Those are now gone because the Forest Service chopped them down for the timber industry. Then, the Forest Service, for the last hundred years, long before environmentalists were around, has put out every fire in the area, which has caused these dense thickets to go up. So the problem we have out there has nothing to do with environmentalism and what's happened the last couple of decades. This is has to do with a hundred years of mismanagement by the U.S. Forest Service.

NOVAK: Well, let me give you -- Mr. Suckling, let me give you a witness for the opposition. And I'm not giving you some fellow right-winger like me and Mr. McInnis. I'm going to give you the liberals' favorite Republican these days and environmentalist, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. And let's listen to what he has to say.

(Videotape begins)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: It might have been not nearly as serious if it hadn't been for radical environmental organizations and others that have kept us from cleaning out these forests.

(Video ends)

NOVAK: Quite apart from your history...


NOVAK: ... you had kept them from cleaning out the forests, haven't you?

SUCKLING: Well, if there's one thing that all Western Republicans are consistent about, it's blaming every calamity they can think of on environmentalists. Just after the World Trade Center attack, that day Don Young was blaming environmentalists and he was wrong.

Mr. McInnis, who's here with us today, last year, blamed the death of firefighters on the Endangered Species Act. And then, all the federal reviews afterwards said he was wrong. And so today, when McInnis and McCain and the usual crowd come out and blame the latest calamity on environmentalists, they're wrong again.

What's wrong with these forests is they've been managed exclusively for timber industry profits for a hundred years. The old fire-resistant trees have been cut down and shipped to the timber mills and fires have been suppressed because they were viewed to be dangerous to the timber industry. And now, we have got this problem.

And while environmentalists are putting forward solutions to the issue, which is thinning small trees, doing prescribed burns, the timber industry -- the Forest Service -- with the help of the West's Republicans, keep pushing to cut down more old-growth trees. We're not going to solve this problem by cutting down ...

MCINNIS: Let me just say something to you. Let me say something to you. My home is in Colorado. I've lived there all my life. I've been on these fires. I've taken bodies off those mountains. We lost five firefighters just miles from my house over the weekend, responding to these things. This isn't a partisan issue. Get off that Republican/Democratic stuff. We got stuff burning out there, pal, and you better wake up to it.

SUCKLING: This is a partisan issue.

CARVILLE: Go ahead, Mr. Novak. I agree it's not a partisan issue. Mr. Novak's been sitting here blaming the liberals and environmentalists the whole show; so if you want to criticize this guy, criticize him too.




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