WASHINGTON – With fires threatening communities in Arizona and New Mexico, a Senate committee considered legislation Thursday that would accelerate projects to cut trees from thick, dense forests to reduce the risks of catastrophic fire.
"The long, hot summer of forest fires has already begun and they're playing themselves out in the states of New Mexico and Arizona," Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said as the Senate Agriculture Committee (search) debated the bill, which is backed by the Bush administration.
The bill would allow federal land managers to accelerate logging and controlled burning on 20 million acres of federal land with the most severe fire risks, either because they have grown thick with flammable brush and trees or because disease or insect infestations have left behind dead, dry timber.
The areas would be exempt from some of the normal environmental reviews. It would also limit administrative appeals and direct judges to expedite court challenges that Republicans say have caused projects to bog down for years.
The changes, said Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary in charge of the Forest Service (search), would allow more money to be devoted to treating the forests and shorten the time before a project is implemented.
The Bush administration has already removed some of the hurdles to forest treatment. Under rules adopted in May, logging on up to 1,000 acres and controlled burns on up to 4,500 acres in at-risk areas could be "categorically excluded" from environmental reviews and administrative appeals.
Together, the bill, which passed the House last month, and the rules implement the bulk of President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative (search), which he outlined last summer after touring a charred Oregon forest.
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., urging them to pass the bill before Congress recesses in August so the changes can be in place in time to make a difference in next year's fire season.
The administration estimates that 190 million acres of federal land — an area the size of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined — are at heightened risk for a severe wildfire.
"We can protect the environment, we can restore our forests to a healthy condition, we can reduce our danger to" communities, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Michael Petersen of The Lands Council (search), an environmental group based in Spokane, Wash., told the committee that efforts to treat forests need to be focused more on areas surrounding communities.
"We can't and shouldn't fireproof our forests, but we can work toward fireproofing our communities," he said.
He also expressed concerns that the bill would allow environmentally damaging projects to go ahead without adequate environmental review, that it limits public input in forest management and would provide new subsidies for logging companies.
A wildfire along the banks of the Rio Grande has burned more than 700 acres outside Albuquerque, N.M., threatening homes and forcing more than 200 people to evacuate. And a fire in southern Arizona has burned 30,600 acres, destroying 345 buildings in the vacation town of Summerhaven (search).
Still, this year's fire season has been relatively mild, burning 653,000 acres, one-fourth of the acreage that had burned at this point last year. Over the past decade, an average of 1.2 million acres have burned by this time each year.
On Monday, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced alternative forest legislation that would also expedite logging and controlled burns in high-risk areas and would limit appeals, but would require that 70 percent of forest treatments be focused within a half-mile of communities.
Rey said the Democratic bill would reverse some of the changes the administration put into effect in May and would add to the paperwork required for forest projects.
"Many people accuse us of fiddling while this crisis unfolds and I fear if you give us that measure it would be a Stradivarius," he said.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California also introduced legislation Thursday that would speed appeals, authorize $3.8 billion for forest treatment and require that at least half the work be done near communities. It also would prohibit cutting of old-growth trees and protect roadless areas.
Wyden said the bill has the best chance of getting the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate this year.