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Controversial forest bill moves forward

Matt Zalaznick
U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction
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The Health Forest Restoration Act, co-sponsored by Grand Junction Republican Rep. Scott McInnis, has been endorsed by a congressional committee and is now before the entire U.S. House of Representatives.

“For the sake of our communities and for the sake of the environment, we can’t delay on moving forward with this critical wildfire risk reduction measure,” says McInnis, who was Eagle County’s representative until Colorado congressional districts were redrawn last year.

The bill, also meant to block the spread of disease in dense Western forests, would permit 1,000-acre clear cuts of national forests to prevent the spread of fires and voracious insects. Such forest thinning is not disputed as a way to block the spread of fires or bugs in forests that have grown too dense because of the suppression of fires in the past.

“Controversy, not consensus’

More than a million Colorado residents live in the woodsy foothills of the Front Range, the Western Slope and Central Mountains.

Approximately 80,000 state residents were evacuated from their homes last year when 4,600 fires, some fueled by intense drought, gobbled up 619,029 acres of land. Across the United States, 7 million acres burned last year in what was called the second-worst fire season in half a century.

Critics say McInnis’ bill –co-sponsored by a Republican congressman from Oregon – does not adequately protect homeowners and rural neighborhoods.

Eagle County Congressman Mark Udall, D-Boulder, even has said the bill, “unnecessarily guts important environmental laws.”-

“It’s filled with controversy, not consensus,” Udall said. “It’s a recipe for lawsuits and will further delay our attempts to reduce the danger of wildfire on our national forests.”

Another controversial part of the bill allows forest managers to authorize thinning projects by a “streamlined” process that would prevent both public appeals and the filing of lawsuits that could delay wildfire prevention efforts.

The bill also instructs judges to “”give deference” to rulings by federal agencies.

Rachel Fazio, a lawyer representing the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project in three lawsuits in California’s High Sierra region, south of Lake Tahoe, said the U.S. Forest Service already has the authority to thin forests near communities threatened by wildfire. And projects challenged by environmental groups or others generally get underway within 90 days, a congressional report has found.

“”Our lawsuits are filed because the government consistently ignores the science when they are making management decisions, and this bill does nothing to remedy that,” Fazio said.

“Bureaucratic status quo”

McInnis, however, said bureaucracy and red-tape has delayed important thinning projects.

“In one recent high-profile case, the Forest Service had to endure an 800-step decision over a three-year period to implement a management project on over-stocked forest lands near a major metropolitan city and its primary source of municipal water,” McInnis said. “Clearly, this disastrous bureaucratic status quo cannot stand.”

McInnis said the bill now has 119 co-sponsors, including 17 Democrats. It was approved by the House’s Judiciary Committee by an 18-13 vote.

“Any further attempts to disrupt its passage will only obstruct efforts to get a handle around a threat that is quickly spiraling out of control,” McInnis said. “It’s time for Congress to move forward and act on this legislation.”

But Udall said the thinning projects that could be authorized by the bill won’t do much to protect private property from forest fires.

“It seems to me it would be better to keep the focus strictly on speeding up projects that will reduce the risks to our communities and their water supplies,” Udall says. “The bill passed by the committee does not focus on the wildland-urban interface, or so-called “red zones,’ and allows tree-cutting in areas well outside of these areas.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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