Senate Panel Juggles Wildfire, Forest Management

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 26, 2003 (ENS) - When the Senate Agriculture Committee kicked off discussions of the House forest thinning bill today, Arizona Senator John McCain urged his colleagues to work aggressively to forge agreement on how to address the growing threat of wildfire. There may be disagreement over provisions in the House bill, McCain said, but Congress can not afford to allow the debate to once again end in an impasse.

"We face a major crisis," the Arizona Republican said, reminding the committee that a current fire in his state has already burned some 25,000 acres.

"I can not go back to Arizona, look those citizens in the eye and say 'we have taken sufficient measures to prevent future occurrences of this nature,'" McCain told the committee.

The bill - called the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 - is strongly supported by the Bush administration and would expedite hazardous fuel removal on 20 million acres of public land by easing the legal and regulatory requirements for approval of forest thinning projects. It is not just about wildfire, as provisions aim to address widespread insect infestation that is ravaging federal lands in the West and the South.

But Senate Democrats introduced their own forest thinning legislation Wednesday and Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a Republican and chair of the Senate Forestry Subcommittee, acknowledged that there are disagreements over the House bill.

"We may write our own legislation," Crapo said. firefighters

The federal government spent at least $1.6 billion to suppress wild fires in 2002. (Photo by Karen Wattermaker courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
Critics say the bill, which passed the House by a vote of 256 to 170 - including the support of 42 Democrats - is a million dollar giveaway to the timber industry.

Supporters, which include the National Association of State Foresters, the Society of American Foresters as well as forest and paper products organizations, believe it is a critical step towards better management of federal lands and is appropriate in its scope.

Bush administration officials testified in support of the bill, which they say funds research into how to treat forests for insect infestation and takes needed steps to balance legal challenges with the need to act quickly to reduce the threat of wildfire.

The bill advances many concepts of the President's Healthy Forests Initiative, and runs in tandem with several administrative rules proposed by the Bush administration to streamline forest thinning projects. These include forest stewardship programs, by which private firms are allowed to reap the financial benefits of hazardous fuels they remove under contract.

Critics believe the vagueness of the bill and the broad authority it grants the federal agencies will encourage logging of valuable timber, not the underbrush most in need of clearing, and contend the bill's revamping of judicial and environmental reviews are unnecessary and possibly illegal.

For environmental review, it excludes actions from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by allowing federal land managers to perform a full environmental analysis only on the proposed forest management action.

On the legal side, the bill calls for a 15 day window for lawsuits to be filed on hazardous fuel reduction plans and requires federal courts to extend any preliminary injunctions every 45 days.

The exclusion from NEPA and the judicial restrictions are needed, said Mark Rey, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "balance proposition that you can not uncut a tree and you can not unburn a forest."

The courts already consider that balance, testified Patrick Parenteau, a professor of enviromental law at the Vermont Law School.

"This premise of this legislation is all wrong," Parenteau told the committee. "It is not the courts, or the public, or NEPA that is to blame for the sorry conditions of our forests. It is bad policies and bad management."

Parenteau says these measures seek to take care of a problem that does not exist - a report released last month by the General Accounting Office (GAO) that found 95 percent of Forest Service fuels reduction projects it reviewed were ready for implementation within the standard 90 day review period.

The GAO study found only three percent of hazardous fuel reduction projects were challenged in court. Bush

President Bush, joined here by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, touted the House bill as an important part of his initiative to reduce wildfires. (Photo by Susan Sterner courtesy the White House)
In cases of judicial review, Parenteau said, the bill unfairly mandates the court put additional weight on the claims of the defendant, which is the federal agency.

"This puts a thumb on the scales of justice in favor of the agency," Parenteau said.

The language in the bill is so vague that "hazardous fuel reduction projects" can mean whatever the Agriculture or Interior Departments want it to mean, Parenteau said.

"That is inviting appeals," Parenteau said. "The fact that the Forest Service and the administration has insisted on linking fuel reduction with commercial logging is creating enormous problems for how to create a streamlined appeals process that does not either advantage one side or disadvantage the environment in some way."

The bill needs to be more targeted and specific about what types of hazardous fuel reduction projects should be the priority, said Dr. Norman Christensen, ecology professor from Duke University.

"I support the intent of the bill, but it can and should be improved," Christensen said.

Few disagree that improved forest management is needed to reduce wildfires - last year some seven million acres went up in flames and the federal government spent some $1.6 billion to fight fires across 15 states.

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, along with drought that has opened the door to insect infestation.

As a result, some 190 million acres of public land are believed to need treatment for drought, insect infestation and potential fire. Last year the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department treated some two million acres.

The science on how to manage lands afflicted by drought, fire suppression and insect infestation is unclear, acknowledged Dr. Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at the Oregon State University, but that does not mean action can not be taken now.

The bill is "generally on target," said Salwasser, who is also policy chair for the National Association of Professional Forestry Schools and Colleges, which represents more than 60 institutions nationwide.

"Science tells us what the problems are but science does not have all the solutions yet," he said. "We have to do the science as we do the problem solving."

Salwasser says there is science to support projects far from the wildland urban interface, in particular to protect watersheds. hillsidefire

Sustained drought, poor management and limited snowpack has much of the nation's land in the West under threat of wildfire, but politicians are struggling to find consensus on how to handle the situation. (Photo by Kari Brown courtesy NIFC)
But many critics believe the priority should be the areas closest to communities.

"The fact that Aspen fire started so close to the Summerhaven community and not miles in the back country emphasizes the need to do fuel reduction projects where they are needed most - near home and communities," said Michael Peterson, director of the conservation group The Lands Council and president of National Forest Protection Alliance.

"We can not fireproof our forests, but we can work to fireproof our communities," Peterson said.

The issue here is not science, it is money, Peterson said.

The Forest Service does not even have the money to carry out current projects, Peterson says, and the bill offers little money to help. And it largely ignores that 85 percent of the land near communities most considered at risk of fire is in private hands, Peterson said, and the fact that only 20 percent of acres burned in last 12 years were in national forests.

There is a much larger debate at hand, Parenteau told the committee, than wildfires and insect infestation.

"Science can not answer some of the fundamental questions about what do we want on this landscape," he said.

Debating whether a forest is simply "healthy," he said, does not "capture all the values, complexities and nuances that go with the way the public views these lands and resources."

"So beyond the science, we have a more difficult challenge in determining where are the public values and what is going to be the process to allow those nonscientific values to come into play," Parenteau said.