House, Senate OK Firefighting Bills

Against the backdrop of raging wildfires (search) in the West, the Senate approved a forest management plan late Thursday that would allow expanded tree thinning on 20 million acres of federal land to reduce the risk of fires.

Meanwhile, the House approved a record $2.9 billion for firefighting and fire protection in federal forests as part of a $20.2 billion spending bill for the Interior Department (search).

The congressional debate over the forest bill and the firefighting money took on urgency because of the devastating wildfires that this week have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and blackened 730,000 acres across southern California.

"There is a tremendous lesson in these fires. That the land has to be managed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search), D-Calif., a leading co-sponsor of the compromise forest bill. The Senate approved it by a vote of 80-14.

The compromise bill must now be merged with legislation passed by the House in May, which would allow more aggressive and more wide spread tree cutting than approved by the Senate.

The legislation, a modified version of President Bush's "healthy forest" initiative, calls for establishing expedited procedures for tree thinning on 20 million acres of federal forests that are especially susceptible to fire threat and in many cases are close to populated areas.

Bush, in a statement, urged the House and Senate to quickly resolve their differences and send him a bill to sign into law. The president called the Senate-passed measure "common sense legislation" to protect against fires and improve the health of the forests.

The bill would authorize, subject to future appropriations, $760 million a year for forest management, more than double current spending. About half the money would be earmarked for forests situated in areas where wild lands begin to merge with populated areas.

Environmentalists have criticized the legislation because it would allow forest-thinning without environmental reviews and with limited -- and in some cases no -- judicial review. They accused lawmakers of using the Western wildfires to open federal forests to new logging, including the cutting of mature trees.

Feinstein and other supporters of the bill rejected the criticism and said the compromise was designed to limit logging to only the most at-risk forest lands out of the 190 million acres of federal forests. They said it specifically includes protection for large old-growth forests.

"For those who have been so worried that we're going to log the forests to death. They have watched them burn to death," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. "It's high time we fix it."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said old growth forests will continue to be protected. "Even with respect to the amount of acreage to be thinned, it is a fraction of the work necessary in high risk areas," he said.

The Bush administration supported the Senate bill and said it would provide "the needed flexibility to manage public lands wisely" and implement a forest management plan "good for both the environment and our economy."

The firefighting funds approved by the House by a 216-205 vote would provide $800 million for battling wildfires, an increase of nearly $300 million over the current budget. It also would allocate $937 million this fiscal year for activities such as tree thinning aimed at reducing the wildfire threat.

Supporters of the "healthy forest" bill in the Senate argued that a buildup of dead trees, brush and undergrowth has aggravated the fire threat and resulted in the kinds of wildfires that have devastated much of the West in recent years including the current fires in California and Colorado.

During the day, a series of amendments came up seeking to further limit the tree thinning program. But each was defeated as was a proposal by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to funnel more of the forest protection fund to areas close to populated areas.

A proposal to limit the program to five years, offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was defeated 61-31. Domenici said the job of improving forest health to significantly reduce the threat of wildfires could take 15 years or more.