Committee to vote on forest health bill today
SUMMIT COUNTY – The U.S. House of Representatives Resources Committee will vote today on a bill U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis says will reduce fire danger in the West. Environmentalists, however, say the bill will gut the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that protects the forests.
According to McInnis, who sponsored the Healthy Forests Reform Act 2002 alongside Democrats George Miller of California and Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the bill would expedite the process to reduce fire danger in forests. Of particular note is the so-called urban-wildland interface, where the forest and communities blend.
House Resolution 5319 was drafted after this summer’s devastating fire season, which saw more than 6.5 million acres in the West scorched. Many on both sides of the political fence say the fires were the result of severe drought conditions compounded by decades of fire suppression. Others blame dangerous accumulations of forest fuel on environmentalists because they blocked logging projects over the years.
Although details of the bill might change in last-minute discussions, the latest draft focuses on thinning forested areas near homes, watersheds, endangered species habitat and diseased or insect-infected tree stands.
The bill would streamline environmental studies, allow the U.S. Forest Service to develop fewer alternatives for fuels reduction plans and tighten deadlines for administrative and judicial appeals.
The bill also would increase spending for forest-thinning projects from $514 million in 2004 to $900 million in 2008.
According to the draft bill, 70 percent of fuel reduction efforts would be focused on the urban wildland interface. Environmentalists are concerned that would mean the remaining 30 percent of efforts would be directed toward logging old-growth trees deep in the backcountry and thinning trees in watersheds, which could give rise to water quality degradation issues.
McInnis included watersheds in his bill because some water sources – notably, those tapped for municipal uses – were contaminated by mud after the Hayman and Missionary Ridge fires this summer.
The need for fire
Environmentalists advocate a variety of methods – including prescribed burns – to reduce fire hazards and improve the health of forests. Fires are a necessary part of the ecosystem, helping reduce fuels on the forest floor while encouraging species diversity.
According to Boone Kauffman, a fisheries and wildlife professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, this summer’s fires weren’t out of the ordinary.
“What’s different is the severity they cause to people and property because of the interface,” he said Monday. “Our land management is now coming back to haunt us.”
Historically, he said, logging, livestock grazing and roads have proven to be more damaging than fires by making the denuded forest floor susceptible to erosion and flood damage. Allowing thinning in the backcountry could exacerbate those problems, Kauffman said.
“If this act focused on these lands and the urban-wildland interface, we’d address the problems facing firefighters and wildland mangers,” he said. “Thinning with chain saws isn’t necessarily the best approach. Reintroducing fire may be the best restoration effort.”
He said he finds it troublesome that the bill would allow loggers to remove larger, older trees, which could lead to warmer, dryer and windier conditions.
“We need to just follow the basic tenets of forest restoration and return the forest to its natural structure and function,” he said. “That includes fire cycles and a long-term commitment to land management.”
“Any kind of fuels treatment wouldn’t have worked this year,” Kauffman added. “Firefighters and fire specialists said the rocks were burning. Fires were burning through areas and fuels we’d never guessed they could burn. If we’re going to spend thousands of dollars per acre, we should place thinning closer to places where lives and property are at greater risk. You simply can’t treat the entire landscape of the world.”
Fires and chain saws
Many environmentalists have said since the beginning of the fire season that the fires were merely an excuse for politicians to expand logging operations throughout the West.
“They are under a great deal of political pressure to show their constituents they are actually doing something to address the fires that occurred this summer,” said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. “Unfortunately, it goes far beyond addressing forest fires. It incorporates major portions of the regulations of the Bush administration and timber industry to log further.”
Lois Shiffer, an attorney who has helped defend NEPA regulations, said that act has three important components.
“It provides good information to the agency decision maker, it ensures public participation and it provides alternatives to a proposal – different ways to get to the same outcome, or ways to get there in a more environmentally sound way,” she said. “This legislation would give the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior the right to say, “No alternatives.’ That cuts the heart out of NEPA. That’s crucial. This is a head-in-the-sands approach.”
Michael Anderson, legal and policy analyst for the Wilderness Society, said his organization also is concerned about that exemption.
“It would make it practically or legally impossible to enforce key environmental laws when it comes to hazardous fuels projects,” Anderson said. “It would require any lawsuits with hazardous fuels projects to be filed within 15 days after the project is OK’d by the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. That is well before other requirements in the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.”
Anderson said judges would be required to make a decision within 60 to 90 days after the suits are filed.
“Given all the conflicting demands on the courts, we think it’s highly unlikely judges can make decisions as this legislation requires,” he said. “These lawsuits will be dismissed for not having decisions issued by the judges in time.”
McInnis said last week something must be done.
“After all we’ve been through this wildfire season, doing nothing is simply not an option,” he said. “This bill won’t be all things to all people, but it does represent real progress.”
McInnis said last week the bill addresses the issues raised by environmentalists.
“The wildland-urban interface is clearly the first priority of this legislation,” he said. “But it also recognizes the fact that municipal watersheds, like the Cheesman Reservoir, endangered species habitat with extreme fuel levels and areas with diseased or downed trees may face circumstances needing treatment.”
He added that prescribed fire can be dangerous if such operations are conducted near communities.
“Forest types differ, and each treatment project should be customized to best address the fuel load,” McInnis said. “The Healthy Forests Reform Act recognizes mature trees can be fire resistant and seeks to limit removal of them with the goal of maintaining an ecologically optimum number of such trees, appropriate for each project and ecosystem types.”
McInnis reiterated that the act will not preclude public comment.
“The Healthy Forests Reform Act maintains the opportunity for public input … but it streamlines the time frame for the decision-making process for projects at extreme or high-risk of catastrophic wildfire,” he said. “The public is looking for common sense answers to the wildfire threat.”
Anderson said he’s hopeful politicians will not adopt the act in committee.
“I hope there will be some close reading of that legislation and that something will pass that will help the situation and not make it worse,” he said. “We don’t need to change environmental laws to get the work done. Yet, here we have Congress trying to fiddle around with environmental laws and doing great damage to citizens’ ability to enforce laws.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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