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USA: Wildfire Bill Blazes Toward the House Floor ( 10 May 2003)

By J.R. Pegg

Source : Environment News Service (ENS) 

WASHINGTON,DC, May 9, 2003 (ENS) – The House Agriculture Committee passed controversiallegislation Thursday intended to protect the nation’s forests from wildfire byspeeding up the removal of underbrush and limiting legal challenges to federalforest thinning projects.

Thebill’s supporters say it will promote the use of “sound science” inthe nation’s efforts to limit wildfires, yet critics insist the legislation willdo little to address the threat of wildfires and is nothing more than anotherhand out to the timber industry.

“Thethreat that catastrophic wildfires, disease, insect infestation and invasivespecies pose to America’s forest ecosystems is tremendous,” said HouseAgriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.

“Thislegislation will promote the utilization of the sound science at our disposal tocreate healthy, sustainable forests.”

Asimilar version of the “The Healthy Forests Restoration Act,”sponsored by Colorado Republican Scott McInnis and Oregon Republican GregWalden, was passed last week by the House Resources Committee and the full Housecould decide on the bill as early as next week.


Sustaineddrought, poor management and limited snowpack has much of the nation’s land inthe West under threat of wildfire. (Photo by Bryan Day courtesy NationalInteragency Fire Center (NIFC))

Fewargue that improved forest management is needed to reduce wildfires – last yearsome seven million acres went up in flames.

Wildfireswere aggressively suppressed throughout the past century, allowing massaccumulation of undergrowth that is a key fuel for wildfires. This wascompounded by areas that have been clear cut and replaced with closely spacedand highly flammable timber.

Federalresearchers believe this year’s fire season will not be as severe as 2002, butthere are several areas that are expected to experience an above normal fireseason -including much of the interior West, portions of California and westernGreat Lakes states – because of long term drought and limited snowpack.

Environmentalistsand some Democrats have serious reservations about the legislation passedThursday, which is similar to the Bush administration’s “Healthy ForestsInitiative.”

The billlooks to expedite hazardous fuel removal on 20 million acres of Forest Serviceland by easing the legal and regulatory requirements for approval of forestthinning projects. Supporters say the process must be streamlined in order toallow the Forest Service to quickly and effectively deal with the threat ofwildfires.

“Theimminent threat of catastrophic fires in our national forests has forced theBush administration and Congress into action,” said Representative RichardPombo, a member of the Agriculture Committee and the chairman of the ResourcesCommittee.

“Giventhe devastating effects of these wildfires, it would be irresponsible to leaveoutdated regulations in place and have bureaucracy to blame for the loss ofanother million acres, another home, or another human life,” said Pombo, aRepublican from California.

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



BothRepublicans and Democrats say they want to reduce the threat of wildfires, butconsensus on how best to do this has proven elusive. (Photo courtesy NIFC)

 Theysay it violates the National Environmental Policy Act and allows clear cuttingof up to 1,000 acres under the guise of scientific study.

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

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

Acoalition of 103 conservation groups sent a letter to every member of the Houseof Representatives Thursday urging them to reject the bill.

“Makeno mistake, the McInnis bill does nothing to protect homes and communities fromwildfire or promote badly needed ecological restoration projects,” saidAndrew George, campaign coordinator with the National Forest ProtectionAlliance.

“Insteadthe McInnis bill focuses on limiting citizen participation and undermining ournation’s environmental laws in order to increase logging on America’s NationalForests,” George said. “It is that simple.”

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

To thisend, the legislation would reduce the number of days a judge can block plans totreat fire prone forests and requiring federal courts to extend any preliminaryinjunctions every 45 days.

The billcalls for a 15 day window for lawsuits to be filed on hazardous fuel reductionplans and allows federal land managers to perform a full environmental analysisonly on the proposed forest management action.



2002 wasone of the worst. (Photo by Kari Brown courtesy NIFC)

Thesemoves do not shortchange the public, according to bill cosponsor McInnis, ratherit relies on the 10 year Comprehensive Wildlife Strategy developed by theWestern Governors Association (WGA).

McInnissaid the WGA strategy was “drafted with the help of and supported byenvironmental groups, like the Wilderness Society” – a claim rejected bythe organization’s representative who helped craft the WGA’s plan.

Accordingto Gregory Aplet, a forest ecologist with The Wilderness Society who worked onthe WGA plan, this framework is “anchored in three bedrockprinciples.” It emphasizes protection of communities and watersheds atrisk, collaboration among governments and stakeholders, and accountabilitythrough performance measures and monitoring, Aplet explained.

“McInnis’sbill does nothing to advance any of these principles,” Aplet said. “Itsimply truncates the existing planning process and eliminates opportunities forpublic involvement in public lands decision making.”

The billeliminates the evaluation of alternatives and the consideration ofadministrative appeals, Aplet said, altering the responsibilities of federalagencies and “imposes new, burdensome mandates on the judicialsystem.”

Thecharge that the federal government’s ability to manage the wildfire threatwithin the nation’s forests is under siege from environmental lawyers does notappear to stand up in the face of two recent reports by researchers at NorthernArizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute. These reports found thatappeals of Forest Service actions have been on a downward trend since peaking in1998.

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


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