Forest bill sails through

By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian


Reignited by the wildfires sweeping Southern California, legislation intended to hasten the thinning of fire-prone national forests passed the U.S. Senate late Thursday night.

The bill, a compromise version of the Healthy Forests legislation that passed the U.S. House earlier this year, won the support of both of Montana's senators.

"It's not as giant a step as I wanted, but that's just me," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. "We've got to quit this posturing and pandering to people who think all the forests in the world should burn. So I'm supportive of this compromise."

"I thought it was virtually impossible to get the Senate to agree on a bill," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "But we've found a solution."

The Senate bill passed on an 80-14 vote and now moves to a House-Senate conference committee.

The fires in Southern California provided the punctuation mark on a season that found hundreds of thousands of acres - and now thousands of houses - burning all across the West, Baucus said.

"The need for a bill is getting greater all the time," he said. "We've got to find a way to reduce the fuels and minimize the risk of fires."

"People are tired of all the fighting," Baucus said. "Most people are, the vast majority are tired of the fighting."

The compromise bill co-authored by Baucus and a coalition of Democratic and Republican senators calls for a reduction of hazardous fuels on 20 million acres of public land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, mostly in the West.

Priority would be given to forests close to communities - the so-called wildland-urban interface within a half-mile of cities and towns.

The bill would authorize - although not appropriate - $760 million a year in spending on fuel-reduction projects. At least half the money would be designated for thinning forests close to communities.

Foresters still would be required to write either an environmental analysis or a more in-depth environmental impact statement of the fuel work, but they would look at only three alternatives: no action, the agency's preferred action and a proposal recommended by the public.

The publicly written proposal would have to achieve the same fuel-reduction goal as the Forest Service's plan.

Even as the bill was being debated on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon and evening, environmentalists panned the compromise as a giveaway to timber companies - and said they'll protest the legislation at rallies nationwide on Friday.

"To begin with, we are not at all, in any way, shape or form supportive of the compromise," said Matthew Koehler of Missoula's Native Forest Network.

"We've seen a lot of senators, in their comments, mention the California wildfires," he said. "But what we know about the California fires is this: Even the Forest Service people are saying the vast majority of the land and vegetation burning down there is chaparral or scrub oak and sagebrush. We're aren't even talking about forests burning."

As written, the Senate bill would not protect communities, homes or lives, Koehler insisted, because it does not put money into thinning and clearing private land - the forests immediately surrounding homes.

Environmentalists also worry that the public will be shut out of the decision-making process, then will have little recourse other than to file a lawsuit, Koehler said.

But Baucus said much of his involvement in negotiating a compromise bill came out of a concern for preserving the public's right to take part in the decision-making.

"I would fight to the death to make sure there is adequate public participation," the senator said. "It's just something I believe in."

The compromise bill would make fuel-reduction projects off-limits to the Forest Service's usual administrative appeals process, but would call on the Agriculture Secretary to create a new "pre-decisional administrative review process."

Citizens unhappy with a proposal could file an appeal anytime after an environmental assessment was completed and before the final decision was released.

After the agency made a decision, though, citizens would have to rely on the judiciary to stop a project.

However, the legislation also puts judges on notice that they need to expedite consideration of lawsuits challenging fuel-reduction projects - and that they should consider both the environmental and economic consequences of their decisions.

Unlike the Healthy Forests bill passed by the House, though, the Senate version does not attempt to force judges to abide by a new "public interest/balance of harms" standard, Baucus said.

"We wanted to maintain the integrity of the judicial process," he said. "That's got to be balanced. There were provisions suggested which would have forced judges to more strongly consider economic rather than non-economic measures."

For Burns, the key is to spend more money on thinning and restoring forests and less money fighting fires.

"We have spent way too much money on fire suppression," he said. "We're trying to get enough money into the fire account where they don't cut money from other programs just to fight fires. It becomes an every-year event."

Burns said he agrees with the emphasis on financing projects close to communities, but doesn't believe the government should be responsible for thinning private land.

"If you build in the timber, then you're going to have to take some responsibility to clear the underbrush and pay attention to the management of your particular area," the senator said.

"If preventive medicine and living a healthy lifestyle prolongs your life and makes you a better producer, then the same thing applies to a forest," Burns said.

"People have gone out and built houses in areas where houses should not be built," he said. "But is that the responsibility of the Forest Service or the federal government?"

Both Burns and Baucus conceded that the Healthy Forests bill does nothing to address the problem of ever-more homes in the forest.

"But at least it addresses the forest," Baucus said.

The Senate compromise also calls for the maintenance of old-growth timber and the restoration of old-growth stands to their pre-fire-suppression condition.

Again, though, environmentalists are worried that the bill includes a "vague loophole" allowing the logging of old-growth trees in the name of restoration.

"Yes, we want to see money and projects going toward forest restoration," Koehler said. "But we see restoration issues revolving around the fact that we have too many roads and weeds and damaged riparian areas. This bill doesn't address any of our restoration priorities."

Both Baucus and Burns said they believe a compromise will now be reached between the House and Senate, at least in part because the Bush administration has come out in support of the Senate bill.

"So far, we've been able to get just about everybody to the table," Burns said. "We even got (Democratic Sen. Ron) Wyden from Oregon, and he has always been cast as one of those wild-eyed environmentalists. But he understood the problem, too, and came to the table.

"I'm thinking that Americans have seen these fires all summer and now these late-fall fires, and are saying we need to find a solution here," Burns said. "The environmentalists have been in control for the past 30 years, and it hasn't worked. I would hope they'll get together with us now and be part of the solution."


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