President's Wildfire Bill Heads to Senate Floor

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 24, 2003 (ENS) - The Senate Agriculture Committee today approved legislation that largely mirrors both a House bill and the Bush administration's plan for reducing the threat of wildfire on public lands. The bill streamlines federal planning requirements for thinning forests on some 20 million acres of federal land and limits legal challenges to agency actions, but critics say it will do little now - or in the future - to address the threat of wildfires.

The bill addresses the "litigation paralysis" and "frivolous appeals" that are impeding agency attempts to restore the health of the nation's forests and reduce the wildfire threat, said Idaho Senator Michael Crapo, a Republican.

"Now is the time for action," said Crapo, the chairman of the Forestry Subcommittee and coauthor of the Senate bill. "We cannot let our forests continue to decay as projects to enhance their health are delayed behind endless and frivolous lawsuits and appeals."

The committee approved the bill with a bipartisan voice vote, but provisions remain in the legislation that many believe are controversial and could undermine bipartisan support for the bill.

Critics believe the vagueness of the bill and the broad authority it grants federal agencies will encourage logging of valuable timber, not the underbrush most in need of clearing, and contend the bill's revamping of judicial and environmental reviews cut out the public and are unnecessary and possibly illegal. firevalley

Some supporters of the bill say environmentalists are a major reason why the nation's forests have been poorly managed. (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
The bill advances many concepts of the President's Healthy Forests Initiative, and runs in tandem with several administrative rules proposed by the Bush administration to streamline forest thinning projects. These include forest stewardship programs, by which private firms are allowed to reap the financial benefits of hazardous fuels they remove under contract.

It does not set priorities and does not have adequate funding, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

"I do not think that the forest researchers, as good as they are, are going to find a way to grow money on trees," Leahy told the committee.

Many forest experts believe it could cost up to $1 billion a year to do the required preventative wild fire fuel reduction efforts. The Senate bill provides some $410 million largely over four years, but much of it is not specifically directed to existing agency efforts to reduce hazardous fuels.

It provides $150 million to create a public land corps to work on hazardous fuel reduction projects, $60 million in economic revitalization grants to rural communities, as well as $100 million for grants to expand the commercial viability of biomass taken from federal lands as part of forest thinning projects.

These provisions are evidence that the bill's focus is wrong, says Michael Francis, director of the forest program for The Wilderness Society.

"This bill squanders scarce federal resources," Francis said.

It does virtually nothing to protect communities from wildfires, he said, and is little more than another subsidy for the timber industry.

Francis and other critics believe federal agencies should focus their efforts on thinning forests in the wildland urban interface surrounding communities, rather than allowing projects deep in the backcountry.

Leahy, who is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he had hoped the bill would be reviewed there because of concerns about the provisions to streamline appeals process of hazardous fuels reduction projects.

The bill gives with to federal agencies decision that a project should proceed, calls for a 15 day window for lawsuits to be filed on hazardous fuel reduction plans and requires federal courts to extend any preliminary injunctions every 45 days.

It also excludes actions from the National Environmental Policy Act by allowing federal land managers to perform a full environmental analysis only on the proposed forest management action.

Several legal experts have told congressional panels that these provisions could violate the Constitution.

"I am afraid the administration is selling the idea of cutting environmental laws and the judicial process as a way to stop wildfires - that is apples and oranges," Leahy said.

Although supporters insist that legal challenges to projects - in particular by environmental groups - have played a large role in the deteriorating health of the nation's forests, a report released in May by the General Accounting Office (GAO) that found 95 percent of Forest Service fuel reduction projects it reviewed were ready for implementation within the standard 90 day review period.

The GAO study found only three percent of hazardous fuel reduction projects were challenged in court.

Few argue that improved forest management is needed to reduce wildfires - last year some seven million acres went up in flames and the federal government spent some $1.6 billion to fight fires across 15 states.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports 45 active large fires and says about 1.5 million acres have burned this year, compared to 3.7 million acres by this time in 2002.

The NIFC raised its National Preparedness Level to its highest level today and said conditions are expected to worsen as the wildfire season continues.

Two more firefighters died fighting wildfires this week - eight have perished this year.

"These sacrifices underscore the need for legislation to address the health crisis facing our nation's forests," Crapo said. tobiasfire

Three fires are burning in Idaho's Salmon Challis National Forest, where two firefighters were killed Tuesday. (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
Few disagree, but critics of the bill refute the claim that appeals and environmental review are the primary problem with the federal government's efforts to reduce the threat of wildfires.

They point to a history of fire suppression and forest mismanagement by federal agencies, often driven by the demands of the timber industry.

Some 190 million acres of public land are believed to need treatment for drought, insect infestation and potential fire. Last year the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department treated some 2.2 million acres, with 68 percent of it spent in the wildland urban interface.

There are at least two rival bills within the Senate - both of which target funding at the wildland urban interface in addition to protecting old growth trees, protection not afforded by the bill passed today.

Leahy said he also plans to introduce a bill to provide direct assistance to communities at risk.

"This bill is not going to help this fire season," Leahy said. "It probably will not come to the floor before the August recess."