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Washington Feels the Heat From California

A compromise on a measure to thin forests and reduce fire risks has split Senate Democrats.

October 28, 2003|Richard Simon and Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With wildfires burning across Southern California, pressure is growing for lawmakers to act on President Bush's stalled plan to limit environmental and judicial reviews of tree-thinning projects in national forests.

Supporters of the legislation, which the administration says would help reduce fire risks, said Monday that images of burning homes and smoke-filled skies should compel Congress to pass a wildfire prevention bill this year. But deep divisions remain over the legislation, which opponents say would do little to stop the type of chaparral fires that have leapt across more than 500,000 acres the last several days.

The legislation is designed to speed up forest thinning on as much as 20 million acres of federal wild lands at high risk of fire. Both the House bill and the compromise proposal crafted by the bipartisan group of senators would let the Agriculture and Interior secretaries decide which forests would be targeted for thinning projects. A large part of the effort is expected to take place in California.

A version of Bush's "healthy forests" initiative passed the House in May but has met resistance in the Senate, where a bipartisan group recently worked out the compromise. But that effort has split Senate Democrats, a divide that was evident Monday as Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats from California, took to the Senate floor.

Feinstein, who helped craft the compromise, appealed to her colleagues to approve the measure quickly. "My sadness and concern about these wildfires is only deepened by the reality that they were entirely predictable," she said. "We need to act now."

Boxer, who has favored an alternative measure that would focus more of the thinning efforts closer to inhabited areas, told her colleagues, "It's very important that when we have a bill that relates to our forests that ... we make sure what we do will, in fact, help the communities ... not the big logging [companies]."

Critics of Bush's proposal said the Southern California wildfires highlight the legislation's flaws.

"Arguably it would do little, if anything, for the situation in Southern California," said Jay Watson, director of the Wilderness Society's fire program.

He and others noted that the president's bill targets federal timberland. But most of what is burning in Southern California is chaparral, thick with brush and shrubs, rather than timber. The fires have also swept across a patchwork of federal, private and state lands.

"What the fires tell me is the top priority needs to be community protection," Watson said. "To be truly effective, any legislation also has to work across all ownerships. Therein lies the major shortcoming of the House legislation. It doesn't require any emphasis in the community protection zone. And secondly, it applies exclusively to federal land."

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who worked with Feinstein and others to craft the proposed compromise, said Monday that the legislation is the "vehicle that we can use to truly bring relief to the citizens of America from disasters like this one that has befallen the citizens of California."

Feinstein has called the Senate compromise environmentally friendlier than the House bill and said it is the only one capable of passing the Senate. She said it would provide new protections for large, old trees in back country and would target at least half of the $760 million authorized each year for thinning projects near areas where people live.

Still, the compromise proposal faces opposition from environmental groups, which contend that it would allow too much logging, that it does not adequately protect old growth and that it limits public say in national forest management decisions.

"We certainly dispute that the bill would protect old-growth forests, and it still doesn't provide enough funding to do fuel reduction around communities," said Sean Cosgrove, a Sierra Club forest policy specialist.

Referring to the suburban towns hit by the Southern California brush fires, Cosgrove asked, "Why are these communities going wanting for money for fuel reduction? It's one of the most fire-prone ecosystems in America. It's got a large population that needs protection.... Let's get some money down there and do some work instead of having the House and Senate saying you need to log roadless areas in Northern California. It's ridiculous."

Most of the funding to thin hazardous fuel in California's national forests has typically gone to timberlands in Northern California, rather than the chaparral of Southern California.

Of the $53 million the U.S. Forest Service budgeted in California for hazardous fuel reduction projects in fiscal year 2003, only about $4 million was originally slated for work in Southern California's four national forests -- Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino and Cleveland.

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