Sparks Fly at Hearing on Bush Fire Plan
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - Fire experts, environmentalists and politicians faced off today in House subcommittee hearings over newly introduced legislation to enact the president's so called "Healthy Forests Initiative." While nearly all the speakers agreed that some forest thinning will be needed to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires in the nation's forests, there was little agreement on how that thinning should be achieved.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton delivered several legislative proposals to Congress on Thursday, two weeks after President George W. Bush called on these agencies to support a massive new effort to actively manage forested areas to reduce fire risk. Under the Bush plan, most forest thinning and restoration projects performed in the name of fire management would be exempted from the public and environmental reviews now required by federal law.
The Bush plan would also authorize long term stewardship contracts, under which logging companies would perform forest thinning and restoration projects in exchange for access to federal timber.
Veneman and Norton delivered the administration's four part proposal to Congress while testifying before the House Committee on Resources on fire related topics, including the President's initiative.
"This legislative proposal would give us management tools we desperately need to help get our forests and communities out of the crisis they are in," said Veneman.
Today, the two secretaries testified at a joint hearing before two House Resources subcommittees - Forests & Forest Health, and National Parks, Recreation, & Public Lands.
The secretaries noted that this year's record wildfire season has burned more than six million acres, more than double the 10 year average, and "based on current fuel conditions and weather predictions, the potential for more fires remains high through the fall." The U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $1.25 billion fighting wildfires this year, and other federal, state and local agencies have spent many millions more.
Thousands of people have had to evacuate, hundreds have lost their homes, and 20 firefighters have lost their lives in this year's wildfires. These statistics illustrate the need for the federal government to take a more active role in managing the nation's forests, the secretaries testified.
According to the secretaries' testimony, active forest management includes thinning trees from unnaturally dense stands to produce commercial or pre-commercial products, removing biomass such as downed trees and shrubs, and igniting controlled burns.
Bush Administration Offers Four Part Plan
The first piece of the Bush administration's proposal would aim to reduce forest fuel loads in areas that pose the greatest risk to people, communities and the environment, including forests around community water supplies, the wildland-urban interface, and areas affected by forest disease and insect infestations.
This proposal would extend a blanket exemption from all environmental analysis, public comment, and administrative appeal to fire management projects on millions of acres of federal forest lands with high fire risk. The proposal also mandates "expedited" interagency consultations regarding the impacts these projects might have on endangered species.
The proposal would not apply to designated wilderness areas, but could apply to eight million acres of inventoried roadless areas that are now classified as high fire risk. On these lands, fire management projects would be conducted "notwithstanding the National Environmental Policy Act" (NEPA), the law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their actions.
According to an analysis by the Wilderness Society, "this NEPA exemption, coupled with repeal of the Appeals Reform Act in Section 3, means that the Forest Service could approve logging of old growth forests, road building in roadless areas, and other projects with absolutely no environmental analysis, public notice, or opportunity for public comment."
The next piece of the proposal would authorize the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to enter into long term stewardship contracts with the private sector, nonprofit organizations and local communities. The stewardship contracts would retain contractors to thin trees and brush, and removing dead wood, in exchange for the economic value of the wood they removed. This controversial proposal has been criticized as providing incentives for contractors to remove the largest, most valuable trees.
The Bush administration argues that the proposal would give contractors the incentive to invest in the equipment and infrastructure needed to use smaller trees and brush in products such as particle board, or to produce energy through biomass burning.
The third proposal would repeal the Appeals Reform Act that was a rider to the fiscal year 1993 Interior Appropriations Bill, which imposes certain procedural requirements on the U.S. Forest Service when administrative appeals are made on forest projects. The proposal would allow appeals of forest management decisions, but specifies that any court ruling could "not provide for the issuance of a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction," and would give courts up to one year to reach a final decision.
The Wilderness Society and other critics argue that this provision would allow the Forest Service to undertake and complete a controversial logging or road building project before a court could issue an injunction, rendering the court appeal moot.
A fourth administration proposal would establish guidelines for courts to use when ruling on challenges to fuels reduction projects such as mechanical thinning or prescribed burns, requiring courts to "give deference to any agency finding" that the long term benefits of projects outweigh their short term risks. The Bush administration says these guidelines would ensure that judges consider the long term risks of harm to people, property and the environment when considering appeals based on the alleged short term risks to species or ecosystems.
The departments are also working on a fifth legislative piece, addressing the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan's original promise of a sustainable habitat and forest economy, which will be sent to Congress at a later date. In addition, the departments are working with the Council for Environmental Quality to develop draft regulations and policy guidance to reduce the time and cost of planning and improving collaboration with local governments on hazardous fuels reduction projects.
Three House Bills Support Bush Plan
The Bush plan is also supported by three new bills introduced in the House on Thursday by Republican Representatives Scott McInnis of Colorado, John Shadegg of Arizona and Denny Rehberg of Montana.
The Healthy Forests Reforms Act of 2002, introduced by McInnis, would establish an expedited environmental analysis procedure under NEPA, and restricts the appeals process by mandating time limits and allowing for negotiated settlements. The bill also funds fuel reduction programs through fiscal year 2011 at the levels requested by the Western Governors Association.
"Looking backward, this wildfire crisis is unprecedented in the last several decades. Looking forward, this fiery carnage is going to continue for decades unless we take bold and decisive steps," McInnis said. "My bill preserves the right of citizens to challenge thinning projects administratively and in the courts, but there will be no more endless stalling. Thinning projects will no longer be subject to death by unending delay."
Shadegg's bill, the Wildfire Prevention and Forest Health Protection Act of 2002, allows thinning to prevent wildfire where it is "likely to cause extreme harm to the ecological balance."
"This legislation is designed to break the current gridlock on responsible forest management," Shadegg said, "by allowing projects involving the removal of trees to proceed if they are based on sound science and are intended to improve the health of forest ecosystems. The bill is critical to the future of our forests."
The National Forest Fire Prevention Act, a bill by Representative Rehberg, addresses the risk for catastrophic fire and insect infestation by adopting language written by Senator Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, for the recently passed Supplemental Appropriations Act, and extending that language to all national forests. Daschle's amendment exempted forest fire management projects in his home state from most environmental regulations, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Forest Management Act, in addition to NEPA.
"We must have strong, common sense laws to protect the environment, there's no question about that," Rehberg stated. "Yet those same laws should not be so burdensome that they prevent local forest managers from implementing common sense land management solutions."
"Senator Daschle understands that such regulations can negatively affect the health of our forests by preventing active forest management practices from being implemented," Rehberg added. "And that's exactly the reason I introduced this legislation to extend Senator Daschle's South Dakota exemptions to all national forestland at risk of catastrophic wildfires."
Action Needed - But What Action?
During today's testimony, all the experts - whether from conservation groups or the forest industry - agreed that some action must be taken to reduce wildfire risk. But while House Republicans and the timber industry called for widespread forest thinning with few if any restrictions on the areas that could be mechanically thinned, or the size of the trees that could be cut, other experts disagreed.
David Callahan, a retired firefighter from the Pacific Northwest, argued that logging large trees in many cases may make wildfires burn hotter, and noted that most natural forest fires are "a good thing" for the environment.
"We need to remove the premise that logging mature trees is a substitute for thinning," Callahan said. "Thinning the forest will not prevent wildfires."
Todd Schulke, forest policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, noted that arguments for removing any mature trees - such as logging only diseased trees - ignore the fact that "diseased trees are a natural part of a healthy ecosystem."
In fact, diseased trees form the only habitat for some specialized species of wildlife, which require trees with holes in them, or with softened wood that can be penetrated to find insects or build cavity nests, he added.
But Dr. Wally Covington, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University, argued that mechanical thinning - in some cases, even of large trees - is necessary to protect healthy forest ecosystems. He noted that prescribed burning does not always remove small trees and brush without killing mature trees, for example.
"You can not safely remove the trees that need to be destroyed … with prescribed burning," Covington testified.
Covington also noted that many of the nation's western forests are now packed with many more trees than they would naturally carry, if humans had not been restricting natural fires for the past century or more. While acknowledging that removing small trees only, and leaving large trees, would prevent the devastating "crown fires" that consume entire forests and leave nothing but scorched earth, Covington argued that achieving that goal is not enough to produce "robust, biologically diverse ecosystems."
"Every tree you leave in excess of natural carrying capacity of the land," Covington said, "comes at the expense of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs." The natural spaces around mature trees in a forest that is regularly swept by small wildfires, Covington said, provide niches for the wide variety of plant species needed to support a diversity of animals.
Representative Jay Inslee of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Forests & Forest Health subcommittee, concluded that one of the biggest obstacles preventing wider acceptance of the Bush fire management plan is its proposal to finance forest management by allowing some companies to cut trees, through so called stewardship contracts.
The administration's proposal asks citizens to trust that the companies and groups entrusted with such contracts will make decisions on which trees to cut based on the needs of the forest, not on economic considerations, Inslee argued.
"This is not a moment where citizens are reacting real positively to that request," added Inslee, alluding to previous Bush administration decisions to overturn environmental laws in favor of economic or commercial interests.
On Thursday, Inslee and colleague Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, released a report challenging the Bush administration's argument that lawsuits and appeals by environmental groups have often blocked forest management projects.
The report, "Comparison of Two Government Reports on Factors Affecting Timely Fuel Treatment Decisions," details data errors and sampling bias found in a recent Forest Service report, and concludes that the agency's report is unreliable.
"This report shows that the attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to cut large trees located deep within our forests for commercial profit under the guise of fire prevention efforts often meet with appeals," Inslee said. "It is regrettable that the U.S. Forest Service has not focused its efforts on preventing fires near homes; this error forms the crux of the problem between the agency and the public."
The Forest Service is not the only federal agency to be accused of a bias toward tree cutting. In his testimony, Callahan noted that during his firefighting days, he worked often with representatives of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency responsible for much of the land around Callahan's home.
"A lot of people in the BLM want to speak out," about better management practices, Callahan said. But "the people that care are overruled most of the time," because of the agency's long history of cooperating with the timber industry, he added.
In the end, separate comments by Professor Covington and the Center for Biological Diversity's Schulke offered a ray of hope for common ground. Both noted that the environmental community and forest industry experts agree that small trees must be thinned to reduce fire risks, and that the only economic way to thin the nation's millions of forest acres is to make those small trees more valuable.
The government could make it more cost effective to harvest trees and brush, both men noted, by supporting biomass power production - a green, environmentally friendly energy source.
For more information on the Bush forest plan, visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/healthyforests/, http://www.usda.gov/ and http://www.doi.gov/
For Representative Inslee and Udall's report on fire management statistics, visit: http://www.house.gov/inslee/images/fuel_reduction.pdf
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