National Fire Plan vs. the Healthy Forests rule changes

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The War on Wildfire."

THE NATIONAL FIRE PLAN

What is it?

A 10-year strategy, launched in 2000 by Western governors, to attack overgrown forests and to increase fire protection for communities

Key players

Former Govs. John Kitzhaber, D-Ore., and Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho

Rule changes

None

Results

A $1.6 billion appropriation from Congress in 2001 added seasonal firefighters, hotshot crews and aircraft to firefighting efforts. The Forest Service also hired fire ecologists to research ways to reduce wildfire risk in overgrown forests.

The agencies and the governors agreed on plans to restore burned areas and reduce hazards, using prescribed fire, mechanical thinning, herbicides and livestock grazing on both public and private land.

THE HEALTHY FORESTS INITIATIVE

What is it?

The Bush administration’s effort, launched in 2002, to use administrative rule changes to accelerate forest thinning and "fuels reduction"

Key players

White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, former Interior Secretary Gale Norton

Rule changes

Allows broader use of "categorical exclusions" to carry projects without public comment or appeal

Streamlines review process under the Endangered Species Act

Encourages early public involvement rather than post-decision appeals

Directs agencies to give the highest priority to swiftly resolving appeals of fuel-treatment projects

Calls on Congress to further reduce "procedural barriers"

Results

The Forest Service cannot separate forest health work done under this initiative from other efforts, but on-the-ground evidence suggests that the vast majority of work to date has been done under old rules, with full environmental review and public process.

Last September, a federal court threw out a major rule change prohibiting citizen appeals of projects approved under categorical exclusions. Lawsuits are pending on other rule changes.

THE HEALTHY FORESTS RESTORATION ACT

 

What is it?

A law, passed by Congress in 2003, that writes into federal statute much of the Healthy Forests Initiative, expands the reach of the rule changes, and encourages cooperation with local communities in forest health and wildfire protection efforts

Key players

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Rule changes

Allows agencies to expedite environmental review by reducing the options considered under the National Environmental Policy Act

Eliminates citizen appeals of forest health projects, replacing them with "pre-decisional objections"

Directs judges to weigh complaints about forest health projects against wildfire threats

Gives the Forest Service long-term authority to use "stewardship contracts" to pay loggers for forest restoration

Results

The Forest Service cannot separate forest treatment done under this law from other efforts, but HCN could find only a handful of projects that have been completed under it.

More than 600 communities have completed wildfire protection plans, with another 600 in the works.

The Forest Service has awarded 130 stewardship contracts, covering about 162,000 acres.

Last year, the agency gave $4.4 million in grants to boost woody biomass for power generation.

The Interior and Ag departments have initiated vegetation mapping and modeling, and increased research on insect and disease control

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