Healthy Forests Hits Another Roadblock

Liberty Matters News Service


Legislation to correct the severe mismanagement problems in the nation's forests may not be approved in time to get ready for next year's fire season.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators agreed on compromise language in hopes of satisfying the complaints of critics. Those hopes were dashed Monday, when two senators, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) blocked the negotiations.

Bill Wicker, Bingaman's spokesman said; "We're not trying to be obstructionists," but adds Bingaman objects to provisions in the House-passed version that eliminates costly administrative appeals to critical thinning projects.

Environmentalists criticize the legislation as a "give-away to the timber industry," and Tom Harkin's spokeswoman, Allison Dobson labels the Healthy Forests Restoration Act "deeply controversial."

Rep. Scott McInnis (R-CO), the bill's sponsor, is disgusted by the delay and stated in a press release; "[M]ake no mistake; the sustained delay that this bipartisan bill has experienced in the Senate could make it impossible for our land managers to use these new tools before the next fire season. Americans who live in harm's way and who love their forests should be outraged."


Senators Stall Forest Thinning Bill


Scripps Howard News Service

WASHINGTON -- Democrats on Monday stalled a vote on landmark forest thinning legislation, calling for a new hearing on compromise language negotiated by a handful of senators last week.

The House of Representatives already has approved the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, a bill by Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., meant to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

The bill would streamline environmental reviews to make it easier for forest thinning projects to proceed on Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands. The bill is a key part of President Bush's agenda, but environmentalists have balked, calling the legislation a give-away to the timber industry.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators announced an agreement on compromise language meant to ease critics' fears.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., tried to bring a substitute bill to the Senate floor for debate Monday, but key Democrats objected, putting a hold on the bill until it can be heard in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"We're not putting a hold on it forever. We're not trying to be obstructionists," said Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, ranking Democrat on the Energy committee. "The truth of the matter is we're having a hard time making heads or tails out of this text."

In particular, Bingaman is concerned about provisions of the bill that would eliminate administrative appeals to controversial forest thinning decisions and wants to hear testimony on the issue from legal experts and academics, Wicker said.

The substitute text in the Senate bill would diverge from McInnis' House bill in key areas.

It would add statutory protections for old-growth forests and require environmental reviews of alternatives to proposed thinning projects, including the option of doing nothing.

And unlike McInnis' bill, which gives forest managers more leeway in setting priorities, the Senate bill would require that at least half of the $760 million authorized for hazardous fuel reduction projects be spent in the wildland-urban interface _ the so-called "red zone" around communities.

McInnis does not support all the Senate's proposed changes, but he is angry that Bingaman and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, are blocking action that could lead to negotiations of a final bill in a House-Senate conference committee.

"Make no mistake about it: the sustained delay that this bipartisan bill has experienced in the Senate could make it impossible for our land managers to use these new tools before the next fire season," McInnis said in a release Monday. "Americans who live in harm's way and who love their forests should be outraged."

The delay conceivably could push the bill into 2004, but Wicker said a new hearing could still be held in time for it to be approved before the end of the year.

Harkin spokeswoman Allison Dobson said Bingaman's committee needs to review the proposed changes since they were not part of the legislation when it was heard before the Senate Agriculture Committee this summer.

"This bill is still deeply controversial," Dobson said. "We're just trying to uncover what's being proposed to substitute for what was heard before the (Agriculture) Committee."

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