Congress, Bush Target Forest Fires

Bureaucrats may not be able to stop Mother Nature, but they sure can help make her wrath less destructive.

So say members of Congress, who along with the Bush administration are pushing swift passage of legislation that would make it easier for government to engage in forest thinning and other measures designed to prevent catastrophic forest fires (search).

“This year’s fire outlook seems less severe, and that’s good news,” President Bush said in a Tuesday speech, hours before his measure was passed by the House. “Yet the danger persists, and many of our forests are facing a higher-than-normal risk of costly catastrophic fires.”

Lawmakers and many forest experts say a “hands off” policy over the last several years has kept forest managers from thinning undergrowth that later becomes fuel for raging wildfires, particularly during the dry summer season in the West. By not managing this dense underbrush, some believe the government has actually made the situation worse.

More than seven million acres of forestland across 15 states were destroyed last year. Twenty-three firefighters lost their lives battling the fires, and 815 homes were destroyed. The homes of several of the nation’s endangered species were also devastated.

Legislation that would have allowed some forest thinning around rural communities and environmentally sensitive areas died in committee last congressional session, leaving it up to this Congress to pass new measures.

In the meantime, the budget for forest management has been increased, and the $600 million borrowed from other forest service budgets to fight the fires has been restored. But the bureaucratic hurdles to active management need to be taken away, said Montana Gov. Judy Martz (search), chairwoman of the Western Governors’ Association (search), which supports the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (search).

“In reality, they’re coming forward with a plan that would allow us to thin the trees and take care of the underbrush,” she said, noting her state lost 400,000 out of its 93 million acres of federal forest lands to fires last summer.   “Any start is better than nothing. The forests are burning because they don’t have that now.”

Under the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., and co-sponsored by 135 Republicans and Democrats, 20 million acres would be designated for tree thinning, focusing on the land around vulnerable rural communities and natural watershed and sensitive environmental areas. The bureaucratic process allowing that to happen would also be thinned.

Many say environmentalists have actually managed to stall many important forest management projects in court, while fires raged outside.

“The biggest problem with the current process is that it can take years to get a measure through,” said Blair Jones, a spokesman for McInnis. “In the face of a forest fire hazard -- you need to tackle it in a matter of months, not years.”

But some environmentalists and lawmakers who opposed the bill said the legislation snuffs out public input and allows the timber industry to gut the nation’s forests.

“Fire season is just around the corner, but Rep. McInnis continues to overlook the very communities that need help,” said Mike Francis, director of the Wilderness Society’s (search) national forest program. “In fact, his plan would provide more help to timber companies than to fire-threatened and cash-starved communities.”

House members who spoke out against the measure Tuesday did not necessarily disagree with the importance of forest thinning, but said they were wary of expediting the appeal process.

“This basically tips the scales in favor of the federal agencies,” and away from local communities, said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who supported a failed amendment to send the legislation back to committee.

Supporters of the bill said it did nothing to take away public input, but did reduce the chances for keeping important management projects tied up in court for years, forcing judges to rule within 100 days of a filing, and requiring that all appeals be filed within 15 days of a management decision.

“It’s death by delay,” as it stands now, said Jones.

The Senate, which also let similar legislation die in committee last session, is crafting its own bill based on Healthy Forest Restoration Act framework, said Will Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman for the public lands and forests subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee.

“It would have been better to have this in place as we head into the fire season,” he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.