Forest protection on the honor system

  After nearly a year of contentious debate about how best to reduce wildfire danger, the House and Senate passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act on Nov. 20 (HCN, 5/26/03: Congress jousts over forest health). Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who worked to craft the bill, is hailing it as a compromise and a bipartisan success, but environmentalists say the bill is a mixed bag.

The final bill allows Congress to spend $760 million annually on forest-thinning projects. But Congress won’t have a chance to set aside funds until next year’s Interior Appropriations bill, and there’s no guarantee that it will come up with the full amount authorized. Even if it does, that money won’t be available until 2005.

In the meantime, according to Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council, thinning projects will rely on existing funds — which are already stretched thin — along with money from the sale of larger, more valuable trees. While the bill affords some protection to old-growth trees, critics say there are significant loopholes that, coupled with a shortage of funds in the interim, could allow the Forest Service to expand timber programs.

But Democrats won a small victory for at-risk communities, as the bill requires that at least 50 percent of funds be devoted to the wildland-urban interface. Earlier Republican-sponsored versions, which didn’t specify where thinning would take place, left the interface vulnerable to fire, and the backcountry open to increased logging. But the concession came at a price: The wildland-urban interface is now defined as extending a mile-and-a-half, rather than a half-mile, from a community’s boundary. The bill also strongly discourages citizen involvement. It denies citizens the right to file "administrative appeals" rather than lawsuits on final decisions, and lays out a greatly accelerated time frame for resolving legal challenges to thinning projects. Critics are concerned that Congress is handing judges a legislative mandate to move contested projects forward.

"It is a less than perfect bill that leaves the Forest Service a huge responsibility to do the honorable thing," says Jay Watson, director of the Wildland Fire Program for The Wilderness Society. "It’s going to take vigilance as it’s implemented."

The author is an HCN intern.