House Passes Controversial Wildfire Bill

By J.R. Pegg

May 21, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. House of Representatives passed a controversial bill Tuesday to increase forest thinning on 20 million acres of federal lands. Critics say the bill, which passed by a vote of 256 to 170, is a million dollar giveaway to the timber industry and has no chance of passing the U.S. Senate.

But supporters believe it is a critical step towards better management of federal lands and say the nation must move quickly to reduce the threat from wildfires.

"This bill will save our national forests for future generations and protect today's communities from catastrophic forest fires," said Representative Richard Pombo, a California Republican and Chairman of the House Resources Committee.

The 256 members who supported the bill, including 42 Democrats, agreed that "sound science, 21st century technology, and a streamlined regulatory framework" can reduce the threat of wildfires and protect the nation's environment at the same time, according to Pombo.

Called "The Healthy Forests Restoration Act," the bill is similar to proposals outlined by the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative" and has been strongly supported by the President. It will now be referred to the Senate Energy Committee and is expected to be discussed by that panel in June or July. inferno

Some seven million acres burned last year, the second worst wildfire season in fifty years. (Photo by Tom Iraci courtesy National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
"I urge the Senate to act quickly on this much needed legislation," said President George W. Bush. "As this year's fire season progresses, we must equip Federal land managers with the tools they need to protect lives and communities, restore forest health and safeguard habitat and watersheds."

The bill would expedite hazardous fuel removal on 20 million acres of federal 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 and some blame environmental groups for past delays.

"There is widespread agreement that the best way to prevent catastrophic wildfires is to give professionals the necessary tools to manage our forests - a common sense solution which has been hampered for decades by radical environmentalists who have exploited the judicial system and appeals process," said Representative John Peterson, a Pennsylvania Republican.

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. 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)
House Democrats say these provisions compromise judicial review and violate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and some believe the bill stands no chance of becoming law.

"The bill will not be accepted by the U.S. Senate - it is that simple," said Representative George Miller, a California Democrat. "[It] will be added to the heap of radical Republican legislation that moves out of the House only be ignored by cooler heads in the other body."

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 - including old growth trees - under the guise of forest thinning projects.

The bill is "filled with controversy, not consensus," said Representative Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado. "It is a recipe for lawsuits and will further delay our attempts to reduce the danger of wildfire on our national forests."

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, but of the lands surrounding the communities considered most at risk from wildfire, 85 percent is in private hands. firedeer

Sustained drought, poor management and limited snowpack has much of the nation's land in the West under threat of wildfire. (Photo by John McColgan courtesy National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
House Democrats offered a substitute bill that would have provided $500 million to local communities over five years and required 85 percent of wildfire projects take place within one half mile of communities and water supplies. It was rejected by a vote of 239 to 184.

Supporters of the bill repeatedly said that time was of the essence and some blasted environmental groups for frequently challenging proposed forest thinning projects.

"This year's fire season is quickly approaching," said Representative Jim Gibbons, a Nevada Republican. "We need to protect our forests now before they burn later."

"Over 190 million acres are at risk to catastrophic wildfire," Gibbons said. "Why radical environmental groups would rather see these forests burn down to the ground than to allow responsible forest management is beyond me."

The argument that environmentalists have thwarted forest thinning projects gained considerable momentum among supporters of the bill, even though a report released last week by the General Accounting Office (GAO) undermined this claim.

The GAO report found that 95 percent of 762 Forest Service fuels reduction projects it reviewed were ready for implementation within the standard 90 day review period.

The GAO determined that 97 percent of the 762 hazardous fuels reduction projects it reviewed were not challenged by a single lawsuit. In all, 23 projects were litigated in court and three out of every four Forest Service projects moved forward without any appeal.

"It is unbelievable that Members of Congress actually voted to cut their constituents voices out of management decisions that affect their public lands and their pocketbook, despite recent GAO findings," said Lisa Dix, National Forest Policy Director for the American Lands Alliance.

Few argue 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.

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 snow pack.

Environmentalists say the supporters of the bill "exploited the fear of fire" to pass a measure that does almost nothing to help communities threatened by fire.

"The bill cynically uses the emotion of wildfires to promote an agenda that science and research have repeatedly shown have no merit and little to do with wildfire safety," said Michael Francis, director of the National Forest Program at The Wilderness Society.