Healthy Forests Act Too Late for Many

Liberty Matters News Service


Senate obstructionists continue to mount opposition to adoption of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, even as thousands of acres of forests in California and four other western states continue to burn out of control.

California's senior senator, Diane Feinstein (D) insisted upon amending the bill to require 50 percent of the planned thinning operations be carried out near communities and protect old-growth timber (what's left of it), a provision demanded by environmental groups.

The Bush administration favors the House version, passed last May, that would allow thinning efforts in back country forests, as well as near communities, but the well-connected, wealthy environmental groups protested it was only a ruse to allow timber companies to cut valuable large diameter trees for profit.

They also complained that a provision to streamline administrative appeals of timber sales would deny citizens the right to challenge Forest Service decisions, although few citizens have the time or money required to file weekly lawsuits against the Forest Service like the enviros do.

So far, Republicans have managed to defeat the worst of the amendments and sources say a vote will probably be taken late Thursday afternoon.


Brush With Disaster - California's fires may end a legislative logjam in Washington.

October 30, 2003

by John Fund for
Opinion Journal from the Wall Street Journal

The horrific fires in California have finally prompted the Senate to begin debate on President Bush's "Healthy Forests" bill to curb such conflagrations by actively removing brush and other forest "fuels" from federal land. The House passed the bill five months ago, but the Senate has failed to act, largely because of environmental objections. Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, now urges the Senate to "wake up and smell the smoke." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who has brokered a compromise, agrees: "We need to take action now." The debate over "Healthy Forests" will be a good test to see if the environmental lobby can overcome its more extreme members and embrace common-sense reforms.

Interviews with officials and residents of California leave no doubt that while "Healthy Forests" won't prevent fires on private land, it may prompt local authorities to alter policies that allow brush to build up and become a fire hazard. Mark Price, the chairman of the planning board in the San Diego suburb of Alpine, which is now in the path of one of the major fires, told me that local regulations often prevent residents from engaging in preventive behavior. "When you block brush-clearing and creation of firebreaks, it can put homes and people on the endangered species list too," he says. "When you do get permission to clear anything, the environmentalists come out and make sure you don't clear one bit more of brush than you're allowed."

Ron Nehring, a property owner in nearby Crest, adds, "Our fire policies help create vast fields of high-octane fuel which in San Diego are a recipe for disaster since we've been without rain for 179 days." Authorities say most of the 10 fires in Southern California were started by arsonists, either thrill-seekers or eco-terrorists opposed to new housing developments. Last month, four homes under construction in San Diego are burned down. A banner left at the scene indicated Earth Liberation Front members had set it. The month before, a 206-unit condo project in San Diego was destroyed. ELF members claimed said they had done it.

Mr. Nehring doesn't know what motivated the arson that devastated his community and almost cost him his own home. Crest, a town of 3,000, has been essentially obliterated by the fire. As Mr. Nehring drove towards his house on Tuesday after the fire had passed by, his heart sank as he passed miles and miles of ash and the charred remnants of trees and brush. Even his local fire station had burned down, because its fire engines had been dispatched 100 miles north to fight the San Bernardino fires, which broke out first.
"I had no expectation of finding anything but smoldering ruins," he says. Instead he was gratified to learn that although the firestorm had come onto his property and obliterated the wooden fence, it did not cross the thick ground cover surrounding his house. It went around his house and destroyed all but three of the homes on his street before running out of fuel.

Similar disasters are lurking in the nation's forest land. There environmental groups have used political influence and legal challenges to prevent the clean-up of millions of acres of dead or dying trees. The Bush "Healthy Forests" bill would allow the immediate thinning of the areas at greatest risk and also limit judicial review of projects designed to reduce the fire hazard. Environmental groups oppose the measure because, in the words of a Sierra Club spokesman, it "might open the door to runaway logging" on the U.S. Forest Service's 196 million acres of land. Tom Bray, a columnist for the Detroit News, says the real fear of environmentalists is that successful brush-clearing operations would "bring into question the dogma that the forest primeval should be protected from the contaminating touch of mankind altogether."

The fires in California should demonstrate once and for all that the romantic notion that man shouldn't have a role in shaping nature for the good of all is fraught with peril. Mark Rey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary, says that a century of misguided suppression of fires and brush clearing has to be reevaluated. "Fuel loads have built up to unnatural levels, and that is what is fueling the intensity of these fires" in California.

As the Senate debates President Bush's modest steps to fix the problem, environmental opponents should be forced to meet some of the people who've lost their homes in California and look them in the eye as they defend the status quo.

Mr. Fund is a contributor to OpinionJournal's Political Diary, a premium e-mail service edited by Holman Jenkins.


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