Expedite tree thinning, governor says

By Howard Fischer
Arizona Daily Star


Tucson, AZ - Gov. Janet Napolitano wants to exempt all tree-thinning projects around communities from environmental review.

Napolitano, in testimony Tuesday before Congress in Washington, D.C., said there is consensus that buffer zones are necessary around forest communities. And she said the evidence shows that the delay in some of these projects is strictly administrative.

So to expedite matters, the governor told members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, there should be no requirement to also deal with hurdles of the National Environmental Policy Act in the "wildland-urban interface."

Exactly how wide a swath that would create around forest communities is unclear, even to the governor, who later explained her position to reporters. She said it will depend on individual circumstances.

The buffer area may depend "on how the slope is and where natural geographic barriers are: In some areas it could be a half a mile around a town," she said. "In other areas it may be slightly larger or smaller."

Sen. Jon Kyl, a member of the committee, supports a forest management plan passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year that would expedite forest thinning and hazardous fuels reductions by shortening administrative hurdles and easing legal requirements that exist under current law.

The Arizona Republican said that continued delays in treating millions of acres of overgrown, drought-plagued forests would place more trees, ecosystems and communities in Arizona and other states in jeopardy.

"We need to act immediately to save our forests, but piecemeal, halfway solutions simply will not do the job," Kyl said in a statement. "Over the last two years, Arizona has learned the hard way that unless we are willing to act immediately to treat the greater forests along with areas surrounding communities, we risk losing them both."

Kyl also said that while community-centered thinning is needed, it must be conducted along with thinning of surrounding forests to provide the best protection for homes and businesses.

Montana Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican and chairwoman of the Western Governors' Association, also testified Tuesday.

Sandy Bahr, who lobbies for the Sierra Club in Arizona, said there is a need to preserve the requirement that all thinning projects - including those adjacent to forest communities - must pass environmental muster.

She feared that absent the National Environmental Policy Act process and its requirements for environmental assessments and public input, the U.S. Forest Service will approve projects that are either unnecessary or badly designed.

"You don't have to make it look like a moonscape in order to provide some community protection," Bahr said.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said such a change would "set the Forest Service loose to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants."

Napolitano, however, remained unconvinced that environmental assessments are appropriate or even necessary for thinning projects around communities.

"The NEPA process should be used for areas deeper into the forest," she said.

While talking about the need to expedite some projects, the governor cautioned senators about getting bogged down in an extensive debate over what hurdles should and should not exist for forest health projects.

The House already has approved a bill that would exempt thinning projects on about 20 million acres of forest land from some environmental reviews, speed up appeals of objections and expedite court challenges.

She said one of the major issues comes down to cash - or, specifically, the lack of it.

The governor testified that the National Association of State Foresters has concluded that about $7 billion needs to be spent over the next 10 years to reduce hazardous fuels in forests nationwide. But the request for money by the administration, she said, "falls short of the need," holding "stagnant" at $186.1 million for the year, or $558.3 million for the last three years.

* Star reporter C.J. Karamargin contributed to this story.


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