The Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative gets little support from the Western Governors’ Association

The 2003 wildfire season is off and running, as forests ignite in Arizona and New Mexico. The Aspen Fire, blazing on Mount Lemmon near Tucson, has already surpassed 25,000 acres, drawing about a thousand firefighters, running up at least a $5 million bill for taxpayers, and burning down more than 300 homes and businesses.

Fire politics are heating up, too, over an ironic question: How do we protect forests and buildings from increasingly troublesome wildfires, knowing that fire suppression has helped to create the dense and flammable thickets now burning?

These days, the environmental movement seems willing to compromise. Even hard-line groups call for forest thinning to reduce fire danger around communities. Prominent groups, such as The Wilderness Society, even support some loosening of environmental laws to speed up the work. Meanwhile, the Bush administration, Western Republicans in Congress, and the timber industry are seeking to increase commercial-scale logging in the backcountry to help pay for thinning out the smaller trees and brush.

A version of Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative, debated for nearly a year, finally made it through the House of Representatives on May 20 as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. If it survives the Senate, it will relax or suspend environmental laws on 20 million acres of federal land to speed logging and fuels reduction (HCN, 5/26/03: Congress jousts over forest health).

The Bush administration has also advanced its agenda for logging in the backcountry by tweaking agency rules:

• New “categorical exclusions” will allow logging and thinning projects of up to 1,000 acres, and prescribed burns of up to 4,500 acres, with limited or no environmental reviews, the departments of Interior and Agriculture announced on May 30.

• Logging in California’s national forests will be nearly tripled over what was set out in Clinton’s Sierra Nevada Framework, reducing habitat for the threatened spotted owl, the U.S. Forest Service announced on June 5.

• Governors would be encouraged to seek exemptions to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a Clinton heirloom protecting 58 million acres of roadless national forests, to do more fire-related logging, under a proposal that surfaced June 9.

The roadless exemption process won’t be firmed up for several months, and the Senate will likely consider several competing forest-health bills. But environmentalists say the Bush administration is trying to steamroller environmental laws and public input.

On the state level, however, there seems to be a more measured approach. This was clear at the Forest Health Summit, staged in June in Missoula, Mont., by the Western Governors’ Association. Republican governors from Idaho and Montana, and Democratic governors from Wyoming, Arizona and Oregon, along with natural-resource staffers from other states, led the list of about 400 participants representing a broad range of interests.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal had serious reservations about giving governors the power to allow thinning in roadless areas. “It opens the door for an immense amount of litigation (against state governments),” he said.

There was ample disagreement at the summit, but a consensus was reached on the same basic fire message the governors’ association has promoted for four years: The governors call for more collaboration and cooperation in the woods, for locally negotiated thinning projects with “meaningful public participation,” and for more reliance on science. While the governors collectively said they might support some loosening of environmental laws, they stated that it would be done, at least primarily, to protect communities — not to increase logging in the backcountry.

The centrist message was sent in a governors’ letter to the Senate, and 25 recommendations from summit participants are listed on the governors’ Web site, www.westgov.org.

The author is High Country News’ editor in the field.