GOP pirates forest bill |

GOP pirates forest bill

We need to protect our communities and water supplies from catastrophic wildfires. That’s why during my first year in Congress I authored legislation with Colorado’s 5th District congressman, Republican U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, promoting responsible and selective thinning of trees and fuel-reduction projects.

That’s also why I joined with Republican U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis last year on a bill that narrowly streamlined environmental regulations and focused resources on high-risk areas.

Unfortunately, the bipartisan legislation crafted last year has been pirated by the Bush administration, which appears to be more interested in using the fire issue to promote an ideological agenda for our public lands rather than forging agreement. For example, this year’s bill is not focused on the areas of greatest need, and worse, it includes new provisions that unnecessarily weaken protection for endangered species and eliminates environmental reviews.

Many Western communities are at risk of unusually severe wildfires due to a combination of drought, overgrown forests resulting from fire-suppression policies, and the growing number of communities near or within forested areas. I’ve toured the Hayman fire area with forestry experts, and I’ve listened carefully to their views. What we need to do is straightforward:

n Direct scarce resources where they are needed most – in the “red zones,” areas identified as the highest priority by the Colorado state forester where communities and their water supplies are near to or within forested regions, which amounts to over 6 million acres in Colorado;

n Reduce delays and bureaucracy surrounding fuel-reduction treatment projects by narrowly streamlining environmental reviews and appeals while fully involving the public and communities at the front end of the project development process;

n Allow federal funds to be used for projects on nonfederal lands, which make up a significant part of the red zone; and

n Promote the productive reuse of the trees removed from the forests.

These proposals are reasonable and enjoy wide support. The bill Congress is currently considering fails to include these areas of agreement and, in other respects, goes much further and risks drawing controversy, litigation and delay.

Specifically, it fails to focus on the high priority red zones, siphoning money and resources away from the efforts to protect communities and their water supplies. It does not significantly include nonfederal lands as part of the projects that would receive federal assistance. And it fails to fully involve the public and at-risk communities in the development of projects.

It also goes beyond simply streamlining environmental analyses and, in some cases, eliminates them altogether.

This is not to suggest that our national environmental laws are beyond improvement. But we should be very cautious about lessening public involvement in decisions about federal lands.

This latest administration bill would permit federal agencies to implement projects without the full analyses required by our nation’s environmental laws. Such broad statutory loopholes are not necessary.

Instead, the main obstacles have been inadequate focus on the highest-priority areas and a failure by the federal agencies to do enough to develop and implement narrowly-tailored thinning projects.

Some streamlining of these processes is in order.

That’s why I supported such provisions in last year’s bill and why similar provisions are included in the bill I introduced (House Resolution 1042) earlier this year. But the latest bill goes too far.

Another area that is sure to be contentious would allow extensive timbering of trees that are at risk of insect infestations. Insects can be a serious problem. But I see no reason to exempt those actions from complying with any of the environmental laws.

A better approach is to increase public involvement during the planning and other initial stages of projects. The idea is to make it less likely those projects will be delayed by developing support at the front end for projects that are urgently needed, narrowly tailored and scientifically sound.

Communities are anxious to work to reduce unnaturally dangerous fire risks. Our chances for doing so are greatly enhanced if we provide an approach that will build trust, create broad support and not invite further unnecessary controversies.

Unfortunately, this bill misses the mark. By including the consensus concepts I’ve outlined, we could avoid costly litigation and actually reduce the looming threat of catastrophic wildfire.

Rep. Mark Udall represents the 2nd District, including Summit County. He is a Democrat

from Boulder.

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