WASHINGTON – Congress approved legislation Friday that lawmakers said would reduce the risk of wildfires (search) in national forests by speeding removal of overgrown brush and diseased trees, especially near homes and towns.
The Senate passed the bill by a voice vote less than an hour after the House approved it 286-140. The rapid-fire votes came after a three-year impasse on wildfire legislation.
The final bill, which now goes to President Bush for his signature, resembles the president's "Healthy Forests Initiative" (search) that would streamline approval of projects to thin overgrown forests.
The measure would limit appeals and environmental reviews so that forest-thinning can be completed within months rather than years. The combination of dry underbrush and legal opposition had turned some Western forests into tinderboxes, supporters of the bill said.
"Lawsuits and red tape have led to inaction, and inaction has led to millions of acres that are destined to burn so hot and move so fast that communities have no choice but to evacuate," said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.
Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, said the bill will be seen as a significant turning point, "when scientific management began to regain dominance over benign neglect, and when communities began to regain influence over the federal lands surrounding them."
Wildfires in California burned nearly 750,000 acres this fall, causing 22 deaths and destroying more than 3,600 homes. They also softened opposition to the bill, and Democrats accused Bush and other Republicans of using the wildfires as an excuse to open up remote forests to logging.
Some Democrats argued in the House debate that the bill was a giveaway to the timber industry because it limits public participation and leaves old-growth trees and remote, roadless areas of forests at risk of logging.
"We're not interested in healthy forests," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. "What we are interested in is a big giveaway to people who want to cut down trees on public lands. That's what this bill is all about."
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who co-sponsored the original bill, said the final product would create jobs, improve forest health and protect communities.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the bill, if properly implemented, "will begin to undo 100 years of mismanagement of national forests."
The measure would authorize $760 million a year for thinning projects on 20 million acres of federal land — a $340 million increase. At least half of all money spent on those projects must be near homes and communities.
The bill also creates a major change in the way that federal courts consider legal challenges of tree-cutting projects.
Judges would have to weigh the environmental consequences of inaction and the risk of fire in cases involving thinning projects. Any court order blocking such projects would have to be reconsidered every 60 days.
The bill's chances were greatly improved after the deadly wildfires that hit California this fall. Two California lawmakers, Pombo and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were instrumental in crafting the final compromise.