Wildfire Debate Sweeps Through Congress

By J.R. Pegg

April 30, 2003 (ENS) - The House Resources Committee approved a wildfire plan today that supporters say will return forest management to people who know the forests and reduce the threat of wildfires.

Democrats on the committee blasted the bill as a timber industry giveaway and said it will do little to contain the wildfire threat.

"We are not going to solve this problem in the next three generations at the rate we are going," said Washington Representative Jay Inslee, a Democrat.

Today's discussion of "The Healthy Forests Restoration Act" illustrated the growing gap in perception and common ground between opponents in the debate over how to reduce the risk of wildfires. The bill passed by a vote of 32 to 17, with four Democrats joining the comittee's 28 Republicans.

As environmentalists slammed the bill, its Republican sponsors blamed environmental groups for bogging down the process of forest management to the extent that it must be streamlined and limits must be put in place to reduce appeals.

"Some extreme environmental organizations have successfully exploited public opinion and moved the management of our forests away from the people who know the forests - the forest rangers, our Forest Service and people on the ground - and have moved it to Washington DC, where the management of forests is being done by emotion and not by science," said bill cosponsor Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican. hillfire

Nearly seven million acres of U.S. wild lands burned last year. (Photo by Kari Brown courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Complaints by Democrats that the Republicans were ramming the legislation through the committee without even a single hearing were deflected by McInnis and his allies, who argued that there has been enough talk and it is time for action.

"If we do not move to clean up the bureaucratic maze that stops the ability of our professional foresters from being able to do the work that they are trained and hired and capable of doing, the result is we turn over our forests to catastrophic wildfire," said Representative Greg Walden, the bill's cosponsor and an Oregon Republican.

The bill looks to expedite hazardous fuel removal on 20 million acres of Forest Service land by limiting the number of days a judge can block plans to treat fire prone forests and requiring federal courts to extend any preliminary injunctions every 45 days. McInnis says this does not undermine the public's ability to influence decisions, rather it places needed limits on an appeals process that has run amuck.

"We need to keep people motivated to keep these things move through the courts," McInnis said. "We can no longer afford paralysis by analysis."

Democrats said this provision is bad enough on its own, but is devastating when taken in context with a slew of actions by the Bush administration and Congress to limit public participation, including the Forest Service's move last week to consider a plan to stop accepting emails as legitimate comments on forest management plan

"There is a little irony that at the moment we are trying to create democracy in Iraq we are reducing citizen input in our own forests, which belong to every citizen in the United States," Inslee said. "It is wrong to take away citizen involvement in decisions about their assets that they own."

Two recent reports by researchers at Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute found that appeals of Forest Service actions have been on a downward trend since peaking in 1998. It is not just environmentalists who file appeals, the reports found, and the Bush administration and Congress have used unconfirmed data to shift the blame for wildfire damage away from government agencies. firefighter

The federal government spent at least $1.6 billion to suppress wild fires in 2002. (Photo by Karen Wattermaker courtesy National Interagency Fire Center))
The bill's limits on appeals and 15 day window for lawsuits to be filed on hazardous fuel reduction plans will bring "more lawsuits, not less," said Colorado Democrat Mark Udall.

"The bill even attempts to allow logging to go forward after a court has ruled that a project is illegal," said Marty Hayden, Legislative Director for Earthjustice, the nation's largest non-profit environmental law firm.

"It is the equivalent of allowing a convicted felon to walk," Hayden said.

The bill orders federal land managers to perform a full environmental analysis only on the proposed forest management action and adapts what McInnis says is the Western Governors Association collaborative model for identifying and receiving public input. It calls for an additional public meeting on all projects implemented under the bill's authority, but it removes the requirement that the land managers comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Inslee said this guts the NEPA process, which requires agencies to look at alternatives, but the bill's supporters disputed this assessment.

"We are not gutting any environmental laws here," Walden said. "We are trying to protect communities and watersheds by making minor tweaks in the process, not in the standards that have to be met. Time is of the essence and delay can result in catastrophe for the environment and for our communities.

"This is rigging the whole system in favor of the federal agencies," said New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall.

In order for the government to improve its forest management and study insect infestation, the bill allows top officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior to approve tree removal cutting on areas as large as 1,000 acres. prescribedburn

Critics say the bill would do little to help communities at risk from potential wildfires. (Photo courtesy Florida Division of Forestry)
"Some have said that is a blank check for unlimited clearcuts up to 1,000 acres and that is not it at all," Walden said. "It is about finding the best scientific strategy to stop the fires and the spread of disease."

Democrats and environmentalists say the provision is a blank check, but Inslee said the failure of the bill is even greater than the sum of its parts.

"The biggest problem we face is not process, it is money," Inslee said. "There are 190 million acres you may want to treat in some fashion, we appropriate enough to do 2.5 million a year."

"We would ask the majority to join us in repealing some of those ill considered tax cuts so we can put some money in to solve the problem in the next two generations," he said.

The Bush administration requested some $1.6 billion less for wildfire management in its 2004 budget, said California Democrat George Miller, and the bill passed today adds little money to the pot.

It is not process that is at the heart of the wildfire threat, Inslee said, it is lack of money, combined with continued drought and a history of poor management.

Wildfires were aggressively suppressed throughout the past century, allowing mass accumulation of undergrowth that is a key fuel for wildfires. This was compounded by areas that have been clear cut and replaced with closely spaced and highly flammable timber. prescribedburn

Prescribed burns can help reduce the threat of wild fires. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service)
Last year's wildland fire season was the second largest in 50 years - some 6.9 million acres burned. Federal researchers believe this year's fire season will not be as severe as 2002, but there are several areas that are expected to experience an above normal fire season - including much of the interior West, portions of California and western Great Lakes States - because of long term drought and limited snowpack.

Of the lands surrounding the communities considered most at risk from wildfires, said Miller, 85 percent is in private hands. The bill does nothing to address this, he added, and until it does, it will not be effective in reducing the wildfire threat to residents most at risk.

Democrats say they want a bill to contain measures that target the communities most at risk and prevents clear cutting in old growth and bans building roads in roadless areas. New Mexico's Udall and his cousin from Colorado have introduced rival legislation that aims to expedite fuel reduction efforts in the areas within the wildland urban interface, which is how the lands near communities most at risk are defined.

But some environmentalists - and Washington's Inslee - doubt if even a Democratic bill would really address the underlying issues that have increase the threat of wildfires in the United States.

"Neither bill is going to solve the problem," Inslee said, noting that the issue of long term drought is linked to possible climate change.

"Our efforts are like dealing with the tide with a teaspoon," Inslee said. "We are not cutting the mustard on this problem because we are not dealing with drought or with the insufficient appropriations."

The bill passed today will next be considerd by the House Agriculture Committee.