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Know the West

A law born from the ashes


California’s devastating fires of 2003 gave rise to the Healthy Forests Restoration Act — the business end of the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative, itself introduced in Oregon after the 2002 fire season.

George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests, by Jacqueline Vaughn and Hanna J. Cortner, is the story of a legislative moment in time — one that’s still producing shock waves.

The authors describe the Bush administration as doggedly "conservative, pro-industry, and pro-business ... anything but environmentally friendly" and state flatly, after presenting meticulous research, that "there has been a rollback of environmental standards and regulations."

Vaughn and Cortner argue that the weakening of environmental laws was by design, not a byproduct of budget cuts. New laws and agency rules "... clearly show how prominently regulatory rollback figured into the Healthy Forests Initiative and the president’s environmental agenda."

The authors argue that the Bush administration succeeded because it cast environmentalists as "nuts" and "extremists," in spite of the fact that many environmental groups have long supported thinning of small trees around communities at the wildland-urban interface.

The specter of out-of-control wildfires helped the administration sell the Healthy Forests Restoration Act — it got moderates on board and "disarmed critics, since no one wants to appear to be against healthy forests."

Take heart, those of you who have followed forest issues closely, cringing while reporters or talk show mangle the facts: This book is chock full of enough hard data to monkey-wrench any spin machine.

It is also a deeply wonky book. But the details on this major turning point in U.S. environmental policy themselves are gripping (a personal favorite is Frank Luntz’s Orwellian media-spin playbook), and — because knowledge is power — it’s good to know the extent to which misinformation passes for policy debate.