Baucus brokers compromise to bill -Healthy Forests Initiative could get added leverage

By Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake


Montana - Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., says a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday agreed to a series of changes to the Healthy Forests Initiative, which is expected to give the controversial legislation added leverage in the Senate.

Baucus aides said the Montana senator brokered the compromise to help the legislation garner the 60 votes needed to override a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

The changes satisfied Baucus to the point where he has now signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

"Max worked to make this a better bill for Montana and that's why he's a co-sponsor and will work to get it passed," said Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser.

The legislation is mainly geared at streamlining regulations pertaining to forest thinning projects, particularly fuel reduction projects in forested areas that are potential wildfire threats to communities.

The legislation originally included judicial review provisions where Congress would assert "an extremely broad hand in directing the judiciary on how to prioritize and review these types of cases," Kaiser said.

Current rules require federal judges to view fuel-reduction projects in the same light as commercial timber sales.

If someone challenges a timber sale, judges typically grant injunctions based on the theory that a tree can't be uncut later. Environmental groups often use that argument to block fuel-reduction projects.

As originally written, the bill would have allowed judges to weigh the short-term effects of fuel reduction against the long-term effects of doing nothing.

The bill's judicial review provisions were so controversial that there was considerable debate within the Senate about whether the legislation should be reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, rather than the Agriculture Committee.

To reach a compromise, Baucus met Tuesday with Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Softening the judicial review provisions, the senators agreed to language in the bill making the intent of Congress explicitly clear should forest-health projects be reviewed by the courts.

The language stresses Congress' "desire that the courts recognize the importance of hazardous fuels projects to restore diversity and resilience of native, fire-adapted forest and rangelands" and that lawmakers want federal forest managers "to foster sound decision making for the long-term rather than perfectly executed documentation and procedures."

Baucus contends the changes "strike a balance" that will help the bill pass the Senate's pending review.

The group of senators also agreed the bill should be changed to put a priority on fuel-reduction work close to communities.

“This bill will protect homes and communities, put folks to work in the woods, protect the public’s right to participate in the process, and enable federal agencies to manage our forests,” Baucus said in a prepared statement.

“We have to strike the right balance between ensuring that federal agencies are held accountable to the public for actions that impact the public’s resources, while at the same time putting people to work in the forests and getting logs in the log yards. And we must ensure federal agencies can move forward quickly and efficiently with hazardous fuels reduction work to protect communities, homes, watersheds and wildlife habitat.”

Mark Rey, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said last month at a meeting in Whitefish that Baucus would play a key role in determining whether the bill could avoid a death by filibuster in the Senate. Sixty senators are needed for legislation to reach the Senate floor for debate and a vote, which means that at least nine Democrats would need to side with Republicans on the bill.


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