As fires rage, governors counsel discretion

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

  • Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano watches smoke billow over the Santa Catalina Mountains from a state plane. The Aspen Fire burned more than 300 homes in Summerhaven near Tucson

    JACK KURTZ, ARIZONA REPUBLIC
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -