Fires Spur Bush's Long-Stalled 'Healthy Forests' Legislation

Times Staff Writer

Chris West's lobbying for President Bush's "healthy forests" legislation has been a study in frustration -- until now.

West is vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents Western forest product manufacturers. The Portland, Ore.-based council says the bill, which would limit environmental and judicial reviews of projects to take some of the trees out of national forests, would be good not only for its members but also for the forests, because it would thin out the fuel that feeds forest fires.

Last year Congress failed to come together on a bill despite one of the worst fire seasons in decades. This year a bill quickly cleared the Republican-controlled House but became bogged down over environmental concerns in the Senate.

"We were discouraged, no question about it," said West, a second-generation forester.

Then came the devastating California fires.

The "healthy forests" bill suddenly rose to the top of the Senate's agenda. In fact, as soon as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) returned to Washington from California last week, she went to the Senate floor to urge passage of the bill she helped draft.

"I don't believe the bill would have moved in the Senate had it not been for the fires in Southern California," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) of the House Resources Committee.

"Natural disasters fuel congressional action the way that bone-dry tinder fuels forest fires," said University of Wisconsin political scientist Don Kettl. "Members of Congress hate to be left on the sidelines when there's a chance to take action and get credit for solutions -- and they do everything possible to escape the charge that they could have done something but didn't."

A version of the bill passed the Senate on Thursday by a lopsided 80 to 14.

Yet it's not at all clear that the solution that had been waiting in Congress -- authority to thin out the national forests -- would address the particular kinds of fires that have devastated about three-quarters of a million acres of Southern California.

Environmentalists argue that the logging companies want the "healthy forests" bill for access to the valuable timber deep in the national forests and have no intention of clearing out the underbrush that feeds the most dangerous forest fires.

Both the House-passed and the Senate-passed versions of the bill are designed to speed the thinning of up 20 million acres of national forest land -- the nearly 200 million acres of forests, located mostly in the West, managed by the Agriculture Department's National Forest Service.

The Senate measure would authorize $760 million a year for thinning, targeting at least half of the money for projects on forest land closest to inhabited areas. The House bill does not specify an amount. The bills also differ in the legal mechanisms they establish to oversee the logging companies' activities.

Both versions call on the Agriculture and Interior secretaries to decide which forests would be targeted. A large part of the effort is expected to take place in California, where more than 8 million acres of forest are deemed a high fire risk.

Timber industry officials argue that the California fires would not have spread so far so fast if the forests, some filled with highly flammable bug-killed trees, had been thinned out.

"There's always going to be fires down there," said West, the industry spokesman. "But this gives them the tools to reduce the magnitude and the intensity in the future."

The Sierra Club, by contrast, said in a statement that the bill would do "very little" to protect communities from the kind of fires that have ravaged Southern California.

The Senate bill "does not address fire prevention on non-federal lands, which is where most of these fires are burning," the Sierra Club said. "In addition, the landscape in Southern California is primarily covered by chaparral and other types of brush and grass, while the president's proposal and the Senate bill focus on areas with valuable timber."

"There is a bit of a disconnect between the legislation and the fire in California," said Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society. "Sixty-five percent of the land that has burned in Southern California is non-federal land.... Wildfires do not recognize ownership or political boundaries; our response must not be constrained by those boundaries either."

Sean Cosgrove, a Sierra Club forest policy specialist, said Southern California's national forests "don't have trees that timber companies would want to log," and so they would have been left just as vulnerable to fires as without the legislation.

"It is the environmentalists that have tried to make this a logging bill, which it is not," said West. "This is common-sense natural resource management and protection." He said the effort will also put people to work and create materials that can be used for new goods.

Even before the California fires, the "healthy forests" measure was gathering bipartisan Senate support. It brought together Western senators, who traditionally have taken the lead on forest issues, with senators from other states who saw benefits to their home states from passage of the bill.

The legislation still has to clear significant hurdles before becoming law. Chief among them: A conference committee of House and Senate members must forge a compromise between the two versions of the bill.

The California fires "lent wings to the bill's movement through the Senate," said Marnie Funk, spokeswoman for Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), one of a group of senators who helped in the bipartisan effort to end the gridlock. "It will likely lend speed to the conference too."

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