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Congress Passes Forest Measure

November 22, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A version of President Bush's plan for thinning national forests to reduce wildfire risks cleared Congress on Friday, driven by the recent fires that ravaged California.

The measure, which was sent to Bush for his expected signature, would limit environmental and judicial reviews for brush removal and tree-cutting projects on up to 20 million acres of federal land. It passed the House by a vote of 286 to 140, and cleared the Senate on a voice vote.

Bush applauded Congress for acting to protect "our national treasure, our forests" and for "making sure that the fire hazards that we've seen over the last couple of summers are mitigated as best as possible." On Capitol Hill, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) celebrated the end of a year-long fight to pass a version of Bush's "healthy forests" legislation. "The smoke of the politics of forest fire policy has finally cleared," he said.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), whose district lost more than 1,000 homes in the recent fires, told his colleagues, "We've been mismanaging our forests for all too long -- all one has to do is look at the recent devastating fires in Southern California to see the disastrous result." One House member, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), lost his home in the fires.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society opposed the measure, contending that it would lead to the logging of healthy trees in the forest in the name of fire prevention, rather than focus on prevention efforts close to homes.

"Another page has just been burned from our nation's environmental law book," said Amy Mall, forest specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Questioning whether the measure would have made a difference in the California fires, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) said the problem was that "Uncle Sam did not appropriate enough money for California to do the job." The bill authorizes $760 million a year for forest-thinning projects, a $340-million increase, but Congress must continue to appropriate the money at budget time.

The measure would limit preliminary injunctions on challenges to thinning projects to 60 days, subject to renewal. It would target at least half of the money for thinning projects to the regions closest to populated areas. The bill would leave it to the Agriculture and Interior secretaries to decide which forests are to be targeted for thinning projects, but a large part of the effort is expected to take place in California.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who helped draft the compromise measure, said it would help reduce the fire danger in California "where hundreds of thousands of trees have been killed by the bark beetle -- creating tinderbox conditions."

Environmental groups have questioned how much of a difference the bill would have made in helping prevent the recent fires, which killed 24 people, burned about 740,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,500 structures.

They say the measure targets federal timberland, though much of what burned in Southern California was chaparral and involved federal and private lands.

Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's national forest policy specialist, said environmental groups will be watching to see how the Bush administration implements the law.

"They got their bill," he said. "Now, they need to do the right thing with it."

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