Forest cutting law aimed at wildfires | VailDaily.com

Forest cutting law aimed at wildfires

ROBERT GEHRKE/Associated Press Writer

** FILE ** Logger Jesse Kendrick prepares to cut a tree during a forest thinning operation in the Stanislaus National Forest, near Dorrington, Calif., Sept. 22, 2000. The government aims to reduce the havoc that wildfires have wreaked in recent years by thinning up to 20 million acres of federal woodlands under the biggest change in forest management in a quarter century. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

“”This law will not prevent every fire, but it is an important step forward, a vital step to make sure we do our duty to protect our nation’s forests,” Bush said while standing in front of rows of wildland firefighters. “”We’ll help save lives and property and we’ll help protect our forests from sudden and needless destruction,” he said.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act signed by the president is the first major forest management legislation in a quarter-century.

“This Act of Congress sets the right priorities for the management of our nation’s forests, focusing on woodlands that are closest to communities and on places where the risk to wildlife and the environment is the greatest,” Bush said. “It enforces high standards of stewardship so that we can ensure that we’re returning our forests to more natural conditions and maintaining a full range of forest types.”

The act seeks to speed up the harvesting of trees in overgrown woodlands and insect-infested trees on 20 million acres of federal forest land most at risk to wildfires. It does that by scaling back required environmental studies, limiting appeals and directing judges to act quickly on legal challenges to logging plans.

Critics said the bill would let timber companies cut down large, old-growth trees in the name of fire prevention.

“”There’s a real danger that the president’s pen might as well be a chain saw,” said Amy Mall, a forestry specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Recommended Stories For You

“People want science’

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., sponsor of the legislation, said those complaints are from groups out of touch with the mainstream.

“”Of course when you thin out forests you’re going to have logging. You’re going to have to,” he said. “”But people want these forests managed. People want the science used.”

Legislation aimed at speeding decisions on where to allow timbering in national forests was bogged down in Congress for three years – until California blazes whipped by Santa Ana winds burned 750,000 acres, destroyed 3,640 homes and forced a compromise.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said language added to Bush’s initial proposal will protect old-growth and large-diameter trees.

“”The signing of this forest bill into law shows what can be accomplished when all sides are willing to put aside partisanship and do what is best for communities threatened by deadly and destructive wildfires,” he said. “”This new law protects old growth forests while providing substantial support for hazardous fuels reduction.”

The bill in recent weeks also earned the support of one of its staunchest opponents, Rep. Mark Udall, Eagle County’s Democratic Congressman.

“Although the Healthy Forest bill has some flaws, it is much better than the bill that the House approved earlier this year,” Udall said. “If it is properly implemented it will reduce the risk of severe wildfire damage that now threatens lives and property in many communities in Colorado and other states – and for me that is the bottom line.”

Huge risk looms

Even after the California fires, 2003 was a below-average fire year. So far, 3.8 million acres have burned. Twenty-eight firefighters died battling the blazes, according to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. In 2002, nearly 7 million acres were charred.

The Bush administration estimates that 190 million acres are at heightened risk for a severe wildfire – an area the size of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined.

Mike Dombeck, Forest Service chief during President Clinton’s second term, said Congress should have demanded stronger protections for old-growth trees and roadless areas. Nonetheless, he called the new law “”a step in the right direction.”

“”We need to completely rethink our approach to fire and our human interaction with fire and the wildland urban interface. It’s obvious where we’ve been is not working,” said Dombeck, now a forestry professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

But Dombeck said none of the changes in the bill would have prevented the fires that tore through swaths of California, Arizona and Colorado over the past two years.

Timber contributions

The measure authorizes Congress to dedicate $760 million a year for thinning projects. At least half of the money must be spent on projects near homes and communities.

Jay Watson, wildfire expert with The Wilderness Society, said important changes were included in the bipartisan compromise bill that added money for thinning and required half the funds be spent in forests near communities. How the law is implemented will determine if it is helpful to the forests or a payback to the timber companies, he said.

The Center for Responsive Politics said the timber industry has contributed $14.1 million to political campaigns since 1999, 80 percent of it to Republicans. Bush received $519,350 from the industry. It also has spent $23.8 million on lobbying efforts since 2000, according to figures compiled by Political Money Line.

McInnis said Bush’s signature ends his “three-year quest” to give forest managers better tools to battle wildfire.

“For far too long we have watched these infernos threaten our lives and destroy irreplaceable natural treasures in their haphazard and destructive paths – and for too long we have debated how to combat this growing threat,” McInnis said. “I am pleased to say that with the signing of my legislation, our answer to this crisis is now at hand.”