Wildfire Bill Blazes Toward the House Floor

By J.R. Pegg

May 9, 2003 (ENS) - The House Agriculture Committee passed controversial legislation Thursday intended to protect the nation's forests from wildfire by speeding up the removal of underbrush and limiting legal challenges to federal forest thinning projects.

The bill's supporters say it will promote the use of "sound science" in the nation's efforts to limit wildfires, yet critics insist the legislation will do little to address the threat of wildfires and is nothing more than another hand out to the timber industry.

"The threat that catastrophic wildfires, disease, insect infestation and invasive species pose to America's forest ecosystems is tremendous," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.

"This legislation will promote the utilization of the sound science at our disposal to create healthy, sustainable forests."

A similar version of the "The Healthy Forests Restoration Act," sponsored by Colorado Republican Scott McInnis and Oregon Republican Greg Walden, was passed last week by the House Resources Committee and the full House could decide on the bill as early as next week. wildfire

Sustained drought, poor management and limited snowpack has much of the nation's land in the West under threat of wildfire. (Photo by Bryan Day courtesy National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
Few argue that improved forest management is needed to reduce wildfires - last year some seven million acres went up in flames.

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.

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.

Environmentalists and some Democrats have serious reservations about the legislation passed Thursday, which is similar to the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative."

The bill looks to expedite hazardous fuel removal on 20 million acres of Forest Service land by easing the legal and regulatory requirements for approval of forest thinning projects. Supporters say the process must be streamlined in order to allow the Forest Service to quickly and effectively deal with the threat of wildfires.

"The imminent threat of catastrophic fires in our national forests has forced the Bush administration and Congress into action," said Representative Richard Pombo, a member of the Agriculture Committee and the chairman of the Resources Committee.

"Given the devastating effects of these wildfires, it would be irresponsible to leave outdated regulations in place and have bureaucracy to blame for the loss of another million acres, another home, or another human life," said Pombo, a Republican from California.

Yet critics argue the bill fails to protect homes and communities from wildfire, unfairly and illegally cuts the public out of forest management decisions and allows timber companies free reign to take valuable timber far from communities under the guise of forest thinning projects. firefighters

Both Republicans and Democrats say they want to reduce the threat of wildfires, but consensus on how best to do this has proven elusive. (Photo courtesy NIFC)
They say it violates the National Environmental Policy Act and allows clear cutting of up to 1,000 acres under the guise of scientific study.

And it falls far short of addressing the threat of wildfire, critics say, because it provides little funding to deal with a huge problem and does nothing to address the need to reduce the threat on private lands.

Some estimate that as much as 190 million acres may need to be treated for wildfire threat or bug infestation and of the lands surrounding the communities considered most at risk from wildfire, 85 percent is in private hands.

A coalition of 103 conservation groups sent a letter to every member of the House of Representatives Thursday urging them to reject the bill.

"Make no mistake, the McInnis bill does nothing to protect homes and communities from wildfire or promote badly needed ecological restoration projects," said Andrew George, campaign coordinator with the National Forest Protection Alliance.

"Instead the McInnis bill focuses on limiting citizen participation and undermining our nation's environmental laws in order to increase logging on America's National Forests," George said. "It is that simple."

Still, supporters say the bill takes needed steps to balance legal challenges with the need to act quickly to reduce the threat of wildfire. They argue that the ability of environmentalists to continually block efforts to reduce hazardous fuel buildup within the nation's forests has caused dangerous delay.

To this end, the legislation would reduce 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.

The bill calls for a 15 day window for lawsuits to be filed on hazardous fuel reduction plans and allows federal land managers to perform a full environmental analysis only on the proposed forest management action. forestfire

2002 was one of the worst. (Photo by Kari Brown courtesy NIFC)
These moves do not shortchange the public, according to bill cosponsor McInnis, rather it relies on the 10 year Comprehensive Wildlife Strategy developed by the Western Governors Association (WGA).

McInnis said the WGA strategy was "drafted with the help of and supported by environmental groups, like the Wilderness Society" - a claim rejected by the organization's representative who helped craft the WGA's plan.

According to Gregory Aplet, a forest ecologist with The Wilderness Society who worked on the WGA plan, this framework is "anchored in three bedrock principles." It emphasizes protection of communities and watersheds at risk, collaboration among governments and stakeholders, and accountability through performance measures and monitoring, Aplet explained.

"McInnis's bill does nothing to advance any of these principles," Aplet said. "It simply truncates the existing planning process and eliminates opportunities for public involvement in public lands decision making."

The bill eliminates the evaluation of alternatives and the consideration of administrative appeals, Aplet said, altering the responsibilities of federal agencies and "imposes new, burdensome mandates on the judicial system."

The charge that the federal government's ability to manage the wildfire threat within the nation's forests is under siege from environmental lawyers does not appear to stand up in the face of two recent reports by researchers at Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute. These reports found that appeals of Forest Service actions have been on a downward trend since peaking in 1998.

The researchers detail that it is not just environmentalists who file appeals and say the Bush administration and Congress have used unconfirmed data to shift the blame for wildfire damage away from government agencies.