Congress Rushes Calif. Spending Bill

With California's forests in flames, Congress gave renewed attention Wednesday to a plan that would allow more tree cutting on federal land and took up a record $2.9 billion spending bill to fight and prevent forest fires.

The spending bill before the House included $800 million for battling wildfires, about $289 million more than the current budget, and $937 million for activities aimed at reducing the fire threat in all federal forests. A final vote on the spending measure was put off until Thursday.

Meanwhile, lawmakers included in an Iraq-related spending bill $500 million in emergency funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deal with the California wildfires as well as recovery from the devastation left last month by Hurricane Isabel (search).

For some lawmakers, the forest fire debate was a personal one.

Among those supporting the increased firefighting money was Rep. Duncan Hunter (search), R-Calif., whose house east of San Diego was one of many destroyed by fires that cover land the size of Rhode Island (search).

Meanwhile, the Senate by a 97-1 vote gave a tentative nod to a compromise bill aimed at reducing future fire risks by allowing for expanded thinning of timber in 20 million acres of federal forests. Supporters of the bill said it would reduce the amount of underbrush and small trees that can turn a forest into a tinderbox.

During the day, California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Capitol Hill and appealed for help. "The huge disastrous fires have changed my mission," he said. "I'm now looking for federal money for ... the victims of the fire."

The forest-thinning legislation, which has been controversial, attracted newly broad support as it moved toward what was expected to be final approval, probably on Thursday. Lawmakers considered a series of amendments late Wednesday.

Supporters of the bill said it was needed to thin out dead and small trees and underbrush that can contribute to the rapid spread of fires and also make forests more susceptible to disease and insect infestation.

"Catastrophic wildfires, not logging ... is killing Oregon's forests," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

Environmentalists have argued that the bill would open areas of the federal forests to unnecessary logging under the guise of fire protection. While more restrictive than a House-passed forest bill, it would allow some timber sales without environmental review and limit the ability to challenge timber contracts in court.

"We could see widespread heavy logging of mature trees even in pristine roadless areas," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, complained.

But other Democratic senators argued that the legislation would continue to safeguard forests, especially old-growth timber.

"This legislation is not a logging bill. This legislation would allow the brush to be cleared out and provide the first statutory protection of old growth forests and large trees," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The legislation calls for $760 million a year for forest thinning activities with half of the money earmarked for forests near developed areas. Some senators said more money -- as much as 70 percent --should be funneled to forests near where people live because wildfires in such areas pose the greatest threat.

The White House, meanwhile, said it supported the Senate legislation as it stood and opposed any changes that might jeopardize an agreement with the House.

Late Thursday, the Senate approved a requirement, sought by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that the Environmental Protection Agency monitor hazardous air pollution from forest fires and other federal disasters and make the results public daily. The Senate also approved Boxer's proposal to monitor long-term health of the people who fight such fires.