Fire policy revision stalls in Congress

Billings Gazette Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - Wildfires in the West have calmed down to a quiet roar, and so has the congressional debate on legislation that aims to overhaul forest policy.

"I haven't heard of any discussions," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said.

Baucus has not been left out of the loop. Senators who are leading the effort to pass legislation say discussions are simply not taking place.

"I am going to be real honest with you," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "There are not a lot of conversations going on. We're spending our time on some other things. It makes it difficult."

Kyl and his fellow senators had been in the midst of a discussion about the annual spending bill for the U.S. Department of Labor. Completing all 13 of the spending bills is one of the priorities that impeded efforts to reach agreement on a measure to overhaul forest policy. Efforts to complete work on a comprehensive energy bill and provide a prescription drug benefit for the Medicare program are also filling legislators' days.

Republicans and Democrats are at an impasse on limiting lawsuits that environmentalists can file.

Supporters of limiting lawsuits say the environmentalists have tied the hands of federal officials whose job is to manage the nation's forests. They blame the environmentalists for the debris that has built up in the nation's forests and increased the threat of wildfires.

Opponents of the forest policy measure say it is actually a gift to the timber industry. They have countered with proposals that would provide federal grants to states and private individuals who own the majority of the land around communities. They say that to protect communities, efforts need to be focused in these areas rather than in the backwoods.

"It's bogged down, but there is an effort to break it loose," Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo, said. "It is just part of the process. I think more pressure is beginning to be put on people."

It appears that more effort is being put into winning over a handful of legislators, such as Baucus, rather than into bridging the gulf. Any effort is expected to face a filibuster and thus will need to gather 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to get out of the Senate. The House has already passed a bill that would limit lawsuits.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are leading the Democratic effort.

"Sen. Wyden and I are in agreement on a bill that we would like," Feinstein said. "The key is to get 60 votes."

The Californian said the last time she had spoken to Republicans about the issue was in early July.

Agriculture Department Undersecretary for Natural Resources Mark Rey has repeatedly endorsed the proposal to limit lawsuits. A bill, HR 1904, that the House passed by a vote of 256 to 170, includes the limit on judicial appeals and has received Rey's support.

The former timber industry lobbyist told a Senate panel that the House-passed bill "would improve processes which now significantly contribute to costly delays, and allow timely implementation of critical fuels reduction projects."

When asked if he had committed to either the effort to limit lawsuits or the plan to focus efforts on the areas around communities, Baucus responded, "I am open."

Another target for Republicans is Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Two years ago, Daschle placed a special exemption for lawsuits for the Black Hills National Forest, which is located in his home state. He says he would like the Senate to resolve the issue for the rest of the nation.

"We have to find a way to address all of the questions, even the contentious ones like judicial review," Daschle said.

The South Dakotan attached his measure for the Black Hills National Forest to a spending bill when Democrats controlled the Senate and he was majority leader.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who is chairman of the panel with jurisdiction over the Interior Department's spending bill, is considering attaching a forest health proposal measure to the legislation.

Thomas questioned whether it would be a good idea.

"The appropriations process is already going so slow it will be hard to put anything controversial on it," Thomas said. "It will have to stand on its own."


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