On Aug. 22, President Bush went to Central Point, Ore., to view the devastation caused by catastrophic wildfires and announce his Healthy Forest Initiative. In one simple statement he summed up what Westerners have known for years and what nearsighted environmentalists don't want to accept: "If you let kindling build up, and there's a lightning strike, you're going to get yourself a big fire."
For too long, our
public lands have been allowed to develop into living powder kegs
because of environmental litigation aimed at halting any management
efforts by the Forest Service. Since these lands are overgrown with
nearly six times the normal amount of trees per acre, not to
mention choked with a dangerous amount of underbrush or fallen
timber, it is no surprise that Western states are dealing with
raging infernos. And what is left behind by these infernos is a
black, lifeless forest that will take decades to recover.
Though we can't take back the 21 lives lost,
3000 destroyed homes, or nearly 7 million acres that have already
burned this fire season, we must take action in Congress to help
the Forest Service prevent a repeat performance next summer.
In July, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle saw
fit to add specifically worded legislation in a bill that exempted
South Dakota, his home state, from the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA) and dismissed environmental lawsuits so the
Forest Service could begin immediate logging to thin at-risk areas
of the Black Hills. The Sierra Club and Wilderness Society signed
off on this action without protest, thus setting a precedent:
What's good for the goose isn't good for the gander.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and I introduced an
amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill, allowing thinning on
10 million acres of the 190 million total of Condition Class Two
and Three land "- the most at-risk conditions possible "- on our
public land. Our forest health amendment is in line with the same
language Leader Daschle presented just two months ago, but this
time he finds it necessary to throw whatever roadblocks he can on
the Senate floor to thwart its consideration.
Instead of allowing for a straight up-or-down
vote on our amendment, in which a simple majority is required for
passage, Sen. Daschle has twice tried to force the Senate to come
up with a more difficult goal of 60 votes. This gesture is both
unheralded and not required by the rules of the Senate. Both
attempts to have a supermajority vote have failed, indicating
members are ready for a simple majority vote, but the Majority
Leader does not want Western Democrat Senators up for re-election
to be faced with a vote on wildfire prevention. As their states
continue to burn, they would have to choose between their
constituents or the national environmental groups.
Leader Daschl\'s crippling efforts reach beyond
the Senate chambers, putting his party members in a vise during
discussions with Republicans to hammer out a compromise for this
pilot program. Sen. Domenici and I have worked hard to include
members across the aisle in this amendment, particularly Democrat
Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon, but
they are only allowed to budge an inch on this issue, even though
Republicans have come a mile.
message is clear: He will not work seriously with Republicans on a
solution for responsible public lands management. He would rather
allow extreme environmental groups to dictate public policy, and
incorrectly label our effort as a logging bill, than to let trained
forest-health professionals do what needs to be done to prevent
more devastating wildfires.
amendment is not, and should not be, about politics. It is about
protecting watersheds, wildlife habitat and homes through
preventing the catastrophic fires that threaten them today and in
the future. However, Leader Daschle is suggesting that it is about
politics by not allowing a vote. He is also adding salt to the fire
wounds of the West by providing "special" legislative language for
his state that goes further than our amendment.
Mother Nature has warned us what she is capable
of doing come next fire season if we continue to neglect the health
of our forests by keeping the gates locked. President Bush has
heeded her advice. It is my hope Sen. Daschle will come around to
allowing Congress a simple vote on the Craig-Domenici amendment
that will lead to practical public-lands management and restore
balance to our forests.