WASHINGTON – More timber and brush can be cut and cleared with less environmental scrutiny under a law President Bush signed Wednesday. He said the initiative will help protect communities from devastating wildfires.
"This law will not prevent every fire, but it is an important step forward, a vital step to make sure we do our duty to protect our nation's forests," said Bush, who stood before rows of wildland firefighters. "We'll help save lives and property and we'll help protect our forests from sudden and needless destruction."
The Healthy Forests Restoration Act (search) is the first major forest management legislation in a quarter-century. It seeks to speed up the harvesting of trees in overgrown woodlands and insect-infested trees on 20 million acres of federal forest land most at risk to wildfires.
It does that by scaling back required environmental studies. Also, it limits appeals and directs judges to act quickly on legal challenges to logging plans.
Critics said the bill would let companies cut down large, old-growth trees in the name of fire prevention.
"There's a real danger that the president's pen might as well be a chain saw," said Amy Mall, a forestry specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (search).
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., sponsor of the legislation, said those complaints come groups out of touch with the mainstream.
"Of course when you thin out forests you're going to have logging. You're going to have to," he said. "But people want these forests managed. People want the science used."
Sen. Ron Wyden (search), D-Ore., said language added to Bush's initial proposal will protect old-growth and large-diameter trees.
Legislation aimed at speeding decisions on where to allow timbering in national forests had languished in Congress for three years until the recent fires in California, which burned 750,000 acres and destroyed 3,640 homes, forced a compromise.
Despite the California fires, 2003 was a below-average fire year, with 3.8 million acres burned so. Twenty-eight firefighters died battling the blazes, according to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Nearly 7 million acres were charred last year.
The Bush administration estimates that 190 million acres are at heightened risk for a severe wildfire; that's an area the size of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined.
Mike Dombeck, Forest Service chief during President Clinton's second term, said Congress should have demanded stronger protections for old-growth trees and roadless areas. Nonetheless, he said the new law was a step in the right direction.
Dombeck, now a forestry professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, said none of the changes in the measure would have prevented the Western fires over the past two years.
It authorizes Congress to dedicate $760 million a year for thinning projects. At least half of the money must be spent on projects near homes and communities.
Jay Watson, wildfire expert with The Wilderness Society, said important changes were included in the bipartisan compromise that added money for thinning and required half the funds be spent in forests near communities. How the law is put into place will determine if it is helpful to the forests or a payback to the timber companies, he said.
The Center for Responsive Politics said the timber industry has contributed $14.1 million to political campaigns since 1999, 80 percent of it to Republicans. Bush received $519,350 from the industry. It also has spent $23.8 million on lobbying efforts since 2000, according to Political Money Line.
The campaign finance organizations say that environmental groups contributed $4.4 million to campaigns and spent $2.9 million on lobbying in the same periods.
Also Wednesday, the government agencies that protect endangered species issued regulations relinquishing their initial review to determine if forest thinning projects will harm endangered species.
Biologists with the Forest Service and other agencies will now make those judgments to speed up forest treatment.
Marty Hayden of the environmental group Earthjustice, said the regulations eliminate "a crucial check and balance" on the Forest Service, which he contended has long favored the timber industry.