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After Prodding, House Passes Forest Bill Backed by Bush

Environmental groups say the measure benefits logging industry. With fire season nearing, the plan's prospects are uncertain in the Senate.

May 21, 2003|Richard Simon and Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With the West's fire season looming, the House on Tuesday passed a version of President Bush's plan to limit environmental and judicial reviews of tree-cutting projects aimed at reducing the risk of forest wildfires.

Supporters said the bill would speed the removal of the decades-long buildup of dense underbrush and trees from up to 20 million acres in federal forests in order to decrease the fire threat. Such projects also are designed to diminish bug infestations that have ravaged forests from the Ozarks to the San Bernardino Mountains.

Bush called the House action an "important step toward implementing the kind of active forest management that is good for both the environment and our economy."

But the Sierra Club -- one of many environmental groups opposing the legislation -- said that rather than focusing efforts on clearing areas closest to homes, the bill would permit logging "deep in the backcountry in the name of fuel reduction."

"Instead of protecting communities, the House buckled to the Bush administration's agenda, choosing to sell out America's forests to corporate special interests and limiting the public's right to speak out on behalf of forest protection," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said.

The measure is a response to fires last year that scorched nearly 7 million acres, causing the deaths of 23 firefighters, destroying 815 homes and other structures, and costing taxpayers more than $1.5 billion in one of the worst fire seasons in half a century.

The bill would leave it to the Agriculture and Interior secretaries to decide which forests will be targeted for thinning projects, but a large part of the effort is expected to take place in California, where more than 8 million acres of forest face a high fire risk.

Bush, noting the approach of fire season, urged the Senate to act quickly on the bill. Senate Republican leaders said they will begin work on their own forest-thinning legislation next month, expressing hope of sending a bill to the White House by midsummer. But the measure's fate is uncertain in the narrowly divided chamber. A similar bill died in the Senate last year.

The House measure was approved, 256 to 170, hours after Bush staged a White House rally to prod Congress to send him a bill that implements what the administration calls the "healthy forests" initiative.

The House bill has drawn opposition from not only environmentalists -- who called it a backdoor attempt to promote more commercial logging in national forests -- but also from civil rights groups, which warned that its provisions to expedite forest-thinning cases through the courts could delay other pressing cases.

Such objections doomed last year's Senate bill. And lawmakers on each side of the issue say that it probably faces a filibuster this year, meaning it would need 60 votes to survive.

A century of aggressive fire-fighting policies and the logging of the biggest and most fire-resistant trees have left large swaths of Western forests dense with growth and vulnerable to potentially destructive blazes, experts say. In some areas, tree density has increased from 50 trees an acre to as many as 500 trees an acre, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

"These unnaturally dense forests are only the next lightning strike or escaped campfire away from exploding into a large-scale wildfire," a House Agriculture Committee report said.

A severe drought in the Southwest has heightened the threat.

Supporters of the House bill argued that it would remove bureaucratic and judicial roadblocks that have stopped or slowed fire prevention projects. Displaying photos on the House floor of raging wildfires, Rep. Dennis R. Rehberg (R-Montana) told opponents of the bill: "You're loving our forests to death."

The bill would exempt fuel reduction projects from a standard requirement of federal environmental law -- that various alternatives be considered to a proposal if it could have a significant environmental effect.

"This is not a massive logging bill," added Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). "If we do not pass this legislation, the abuse of those environmental laws by extremists will cause us to burn the heart out of our nation's forests."

But Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma) said the bill showed that the GOP solution to forest fires was, "Cut the trees. If there are no trees, there will be no forest fires."

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) likened the logging of healthy trees to reduce fire risk to "selling a good kidney to treat the bad one. You end up with no kidneys."

Opponents of the legislation also said it would thwart citizens from stopping projects they believe would harm the environment.

Under the legislation, lawsuits challenging forest-thinning projects would have to be filed within 15 days of a project's approval. Currently, there is no time limit.

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