Congress may gut fire appeals
Watchdog groups warn of environmental consequencesBy Bob BerwynWhen federal lawmakers return from their summer recess later this month, they will consider several measures that would authorize the U.S. Forest Service to exempt some fire mitigation projects from environmental reviews, appeals and lawsuits.For example, House Resolution 5309, the Wildfire Prevention and Forest Health Protection Act, could enable regional foresters to void provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act designed to facilitate public input and protect the environment.Backers say the measures are needed to cut through procedural red tape that prevents land managers from moving ahead with projects designed to reduce wildfire danger. They point to delays in fuel treatment projects resulting from administrative appeals and lawsuits.But environmental groups warn that reducing the amount of public involvement could erode trust in government decisions. "Citizens have a basic right to participate in their government. By including the public in the process, the Forest Service and other federal agencies will be able to build strong citizen support for and understanding of projects that are necessary to protect communities from wildfires," according to an email from the Colorado Action Network, a coalition of conservation groups.Supported by Colorado Republican Congressman Scott McInnis, chairman of a key forest subcommittee in the House, the measure specifically states that projects "shall not be subject to the notice, comment, and appeal requirements or to judicial review by any court of the United States."The exemptions would apply to Forest Service lands located "in an area with a high fuel load, and a significant possibility exists that a crown fire could occur which would cause extreme harm to the forest ecosystem or are dead or severely damaged from fire.”Another bill, introduced by Rep. Dennis Rehberg, a Montana Republican, would permanently suspend all laws for logging and would also ban citizen appeals and lawsuits. H.R. 5214, the National Forest Fire Prevention Act, would suspend NEPA, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act of 1964 and all other laws. The bill applies to all "existing timber sale analysis areas."The measure has 24 cosponsors, including Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Forestry Subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee. Other supporters include Colorado Republicans Tom Tancredo and Bob Schaffer.Several other similar measures could appear as amendments to spending bills before Congress ends its current session sometime in late October. Spurred on by this summer’s widespread wildfires in the West, lawmakers hope to speed up the decision-making process for projects intended to mitigate fire danger.But watchdogs groups are sounding the alarm, warning that the public could be cut out of the decision-making process if conservative Republican lawmakers from the West get their way.One recent amendment to a supplemental defense spending bill appears to pave the way for additional changes. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) pushed through a measure concerning hazardous fuel reduction projects in the Black Hills area. The language of that rider essentially suspends NEPA, as well as the National Forest Management Act and bans citizen appeals or additional judicial review of the projects.Environmental groups say the measure sets a "terrible precedent" that could be used as a model for similar action nationwide.Debate has focused on the need to reduce fire danger immediately adjacent to towns and subdivisions in the so-called wildland-urban interface. Environmental groups charge that funds appropriated to reduce fire hazards have been misspent on backcountry logging projects that do little to mitigate the danger to towns and subdivisions.Most research indicates that logging big trees in the backcountry does nothing to protect homes and lives from wildfire. In fact, traditional logging practices may increase the fire danger by removing larger, fire-resistant trees, opening up the canopy, drying out the forest floor and leaving behind flammable slash and debris. Exempting such projects disguised from compliance with environmental laws will not protect homes and lives from wildfire, conservation groups claim.According to researchers at the Forest Service Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Mont., the most effective way to reduce the fire hazard is to treat areas immediately surrounding homes and communities, removing underbrush, fine fuels, and low-hangingbranches within 200 feet of homes and installing non-flammable roofs.While plenty of lawmakers seem prepared to jump on the bandwagon, a handful of cooler heads are calling on the Forest Service to explain how they spent the billions of dollars allocated after the 2000 wildfire season before gutting environmental laws. Some indications are that the agency squandered at least some of those funds on logging projects far from areas where they could help reduce fire hazards to communities and homes.
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