Senate Rule Stalls Forest Fire Prevention Measures

Arguing "what is good for the goose should be good for the gander," Western senators are scratching their heads over Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's delay on the Interior spending bill, which sets aside cash to help prevent forest fires.

They say that after 6.5 million acres of western forests burned to the ground this summer, the South Dakota Democrat, who ushered through legislation this summer to protect his state’s lands, should be quick to speed through passage of the measure.

“We’ve been asking that question, and so have the people in the rest of the western states -- as have his own Democratic colleagues,” said Mike Tracy, spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. "It's frustrating to watch the duplicity."

Craig has offered an amendment with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to the Interior appropriations bill that would extend forest-thinning measures to high-risk public lands in western states. But the Craig amendment -- and a host of similar, competing proposals -- have been languishing as the Senate delays taking up the Interior spending bill.

Tracy said Craig's amendment  mirror's language added by Daschle to an emergency spending bill this summer that exempts certain lands in South Dakota from the red tape and lawsuits that often plague forest-thinning projects in targeted high-risk areas by the U.S Forest Service.

At the time, Daschle said the language merely codified an agreement already reached by the government, environmental groups and the timber industry.

“Americans understand that Sen. Daschle’s bold action was necessary … but they don’t understand why it’s only a good idea for South Dakota,” wrote Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, in a statement to

Western lawmakers are concerned that old growth in national forests has created a virtual tinderbox of public lands in their states, and has been responsible in part for the 65,000 nearly uncontrollable blazes that killed 20 firefighters this summer.

Daschle would not return repeated calls for comment.

Environmentalists, however, say Craig's amendment is "bastardizing Daschle’s bill" because it places the emphasis on areas typically used for logging operations, rather than in limited communities where the concern should be focused.

Craig's and other amendments are "gutting forest regulations" as well as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act, said Dave Bell, spokesman for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Montana.

“It’s a bill that would essentially create more logging than community protection,” Bell said, adding that Craig’s amendment also eliminates judicial and administrative reviews.

Bell said that Daschle's bill "was put together with environmental groups and with several different sources" and that Democratic amendments -- like one offered by Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon -- focus on concentrated areas where the problem is worst.

The Feinstein-Wyden amendment targets 7 million acres of high-risk public lands for expedited thinning. The Craig amendment focuses on 10 million acres of public forests, prioritized according to surrounding communities, Tracy said. He added that Daschle's summer bill had very few checks and balances.

Burns said that environmentalists' unwillingness to see past their own suspicion of corporate logging is creating a more dangerous situation by tying up would-be clean-up projects in bureaucratic slog and litigation.

“The last 25 years of mismanagement has put us in the middle of record fires every year,” Burns said. “I am frustrated by the lack of cooperation on this issue by Tom Daschle and other Democrats who propose that we continue to allow forest health to be determined by D.C bureaucrats, lawyers and people who’ve never had dirt under their fingernails."

Daschle has ruled that any amendment will have to pass with 60 votes of the full Senate, placing all of the varying proposals at a standstill since the Senate is virtually split down the middle. The rule has also stalled passage of the entire Interior spending bill, which was supposed to be put into law by Oct. 1.