Like a hotshot smokejumper, Congress has leaped into the debate over forest health and fire. All too predictably, say critics, it is wielding a chain saw.
that he wants to "break the cycle of forest decline and mortality,
followed by catastrophic fire," Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R,
introduced the Federal Lands Forest Health and Restoration Act in
The bill would allow the Forest
Service and the Bureau of Land Management to give fast-track
approval of timber salvage sales in areas declared "emergency" or
"high-risk" for fire danger. Emergency areas are defined as those
with 50 percent or more of dead and dying trees, while high-risk
areas are forests with "substantial risk of insect, disease, or
Interested parties, including
timber companies, could petition the agencies to designate areas
larger than 100 acres as either "emergency" or "high risk," and the
agencies would have to justify not proceeding with offering timber
sales in those areas.
To expedite timber
harvesting, the bill bars citizens from appealing timber sales in
emergency areas. It also speeds the processes for complying with
federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National
Environmental Policy Act.
For instance, the
Forest Service would not have to do a full-blown environmental
impact statement - even in a roadless area - for emergency timber
sales. The legislation also directs the federal agencies to broaden
their regulations for small timber sales that can bypass the NEPA
Environmentalists say the bill
would clear a path for timber companies that want to log the West's
remaining roadless areas.
"This bill would erode
our democratic processes and result in a tremendous loss of
biological diversity in our forests in a very short period of
time," says Barry Rosenberg of the Inland Empire Public Lands
Council, based in Spokane, Wash. "It would move us closer to
corporate control of our forests."
executive director of the Association of Forest Service Employees
for Environmental Ethics, says Craig's bill is unnecessary. The
Forest Service already has the authority to do the types of
management activities - such as thinning and brush removal -
contemplated in the bill, he says.
Stahl says the
"50 percent dead and dying timber" criterion for designating
emergency areas would yield "nonsensical results." For example, a
healthy, young Douglas fir forest might qualify just because it has
a naturally high rate of die-off. "This is the kind of bill you get
when legislators pretend to be foresters," Stahl
Craig maintains his bill is based on good
science. "Don't be misled by those who proclaim that wildfire is
beneficial to the environment because a natural mosaic of
vegetation is created," he said, when introducing the bill. "The
1994 fires were way outside the norms. Damage to every component of
the environment was extensive."
Craig points to
the draft environmental impact statement just released on the Boise
National Forest, which documents long-term, severe damage to
watersheds, soils, fisheries and wildlife from last summer's fires.
But Art Partridge, a University of Idaho forest
pathologist who has studied forest health issues for 30 years, says
that while the Boise fires burned hot and damaged soils in some
places, tree survival in other areas was 40 to 60 percent. "Those
fires exhibited the same diversity as any fire," he says.
Partridge, who takes a long view of forest
health cycles, says Craig's bill looks at forests only in terms of
"There is no data to indicate
that we're having a forest-health emergency at all," he says. "Our
forests are at their lowest rate of mortality and sickness in 29
years. This bill is just a wedge to do something."
Although forest health bills have languished in
past legislative sessions, environmentalists say they worry that
the Craig bill may have a legitimate chance of passing this
Congress given the current political climate. They are banking on a
Clinton veto if the bill gets to the president's desk. The Senate
Energy and Natural Resources Committee held hearings on the Craig
bill in late February. For a copy of S. 391, contact Senator
Craig's office, 202/224-2752.