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.


Sen. Daschle's 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.


The Craig-Domenici 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.

U. S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org).