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Know the West

Congress jousts over forest health

With fire season on the way, lawmakers again take up the battle over Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative


Last August, against the backdrop of a smoldering West, President Bush announced his "Healthy Forests Initiative," a plan to step up efforts to prevent "catastrophic" wildfires by "reducing unnecessary regulatory obstacles that hinder active forest management." In short, the initiative would sidestep environmental laws and allow loggers into the woods to thin dense thickets of trees and brush.

For environmentalists, it was ominous stuff. But with a public screaming murder after three Western states had seen their biggest fires on record, it was clear that something was going to happen to speed up forest-thinning projects. Nine months later, the debate over the initiative in Congress — which has to approve exemptions from environmental laws — is still up in the air. But with fire season just around the corner, the battle over whether to open the door to logging in the backcountry or concentrate on protecting communities in the forest fringe is front and center once again.

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., has introduced the "Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003" — and it’s a package that has environmental groups cringing.

"They’re looking at some pretty drastic reductions of environmental law and citizen involvement," says the Sierra Club’s Sean Cosgrove. "This is straight out of the timber industry’s wish list."

The bill calls for "hazardous fuels reduction" on 20 million acres of federal lands, while exempting forest-thinning projects from administrative appeals, which allow citizens to challenge projects without resorting to lawsuits. If citizens do turn to the courts, McInnis’ bill requires judges to deal with lawsuits on a much faster time frame than they now do.

"In some cases, it takes years to put a project through the paces," says McInnis spokesman Blair Jones. "The agencies need the ability to address these threats quickly."

Groups like The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club have thrown their support behind another bill — this one from Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. Miller’s bill would treat 20 million acres as well, but is focused on protecting communities. It requires 85 percent of funds spent under the act to be focused within one-half mile of communities. That money doesn’t have to be spent solely on federal land, which is an important provision, says The Wilderness Society’s Jay Watson.

According to his group’s calculations, 85 percent of the land within one-half mile of "at-risk" communities is managed by state and local agencies.

But the environmentalists have had to compromise: Miller’s bill exempts hazardous fuels reduction projects within one-half mile of communities from environmental-impact analysis — and from citizen appeals.

"We’re comfortable with (that), because (those projects) are targeted toward homes in communities," says Watson, who notes that Miller’s bill still allows citizens to file suit. "There’s no effort to manipulate the judicial process or block access to the courts."

Both bills are scheduled to go to the House floor as this issue goes to press.

The author is an HCN assistant editor.

Rep. George Miller 202-225-2095, www.house.gov/georgemiller

Rep. Scott McInnis 202-225-4761, www.house.gov/mcinnis

The Wilderness Society 1-800-THE-WILD, www.wilderness.org/OurIssues/Wildfire