WASHINGTON – Congress last week passed a forest-thinning bill to spend $760 million annually to prevent deadly wildfires like those that recently scorched Southern California, despite complaints from environmental groups that the measure is a giveaway to the timber industry.
The bipartisan-crafted bill will streamline environmental reviews and the judicial process for forest-thinning projects on 20 million acres of federal land while giving local foresters more input to determine which land near communities is susceptible to fires.
President Bush, who last year proposed to undo decades of what he called misguided forest management, was expected to sign it into law soon.
“It’s a landmark achievement,” said a White House spokesman. “This bill will literally save lives, save property and preserve millions of acres of woodland.”
Environmental groups and some Democrats said the legislation unfairly limits public input and does not target enough money for projects near residential areas where thinning is most needed. Timber companies covet access to bigger, old-growth trees that are typically located deep inside forests.
The House easily passed the legislation 286-140. The Senate approved the measure on a voice vote.
Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, conceded the bill wasn’t perfect. “But it will cut through the bureaucracy that has prevented us from managing our forests,” he said.
The legislation has been championed as an effective way to speed projects that have been slowed by sometimes lengthy environmental reviews and court appeals by green groups.
It will require that at least 50 percent of the annual $760 million in funding be spent on forest-thinning near homes. But some Democrats and green groups said that was not enough.
“We have to be smart and target our resources where it’s going to do the most good … around our homes and our towns to prevent the devastation that happened in California,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat. “And why we’re not doing it? Because the timber industry has driven a lot of this debate.”
Under the bill, local foresters and residents could determine on a case-by-case basis how much land is susceptible to fires.
Federal courts will be required to balance environmental consequences of thinning with those of inaction when they review whether to renew preliminary injunctions every 60 days.
The bill will streamline environmental rules by requiring the U.S. Forest Service to propose as many as three plans – a proposal of action, inaction and an alternative – depending on where the project is taking place.
The Forest Service has estimated 190 million acres of forest land in the United States is susceptible to fires.
Environmental groups wasted little time criticizing the measure.
“The Bush administration is handing the timber industry a giant gift,” said Andrew George, spokesman for the National Forest Protection Alliance. “But just like other reckless Bush administration policies, we expect this one to backfire.”