With images of the devastating California fires fresh on their minds, congressional negotiators reached agreement Wednesday on a version of President Bush's plan for thinning the national forests to reduce wildfire risk.
The compromise measure would expedite environmental and judicial reviews for the removal of brush and trees on up to 20 million acres of bug-infested and drought-stricken federal land stretching from the Ozark highlands of Arkansas and Missouri to the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California.
The measure has drawn opposition from environmental groups, which dispute the view that the legislation would reduce the fire danger.
They say it would allow timber companies to cut down large old trees deep in the forest while leaving the land closest to inhabited areas still at risk.
But the agreement was applauded Wednesday by Democratic and Republican lawmakers. It still has to be formally approved by a House-Senate conference committee before it goes to each chamber for expected approval, perhaps by the end of the week.
"When this bill becomes law, we will prove that you can restore forests, protect the environment and put people back to work in rural communities," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also endorsed the agreement, saying it would be "a major step forward toward ensuring that tragedies like the wildfires in my state last month do not strike other communities again and again and again."
Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee, said a compromise had been reached on the most contentious issues.
"This bipartisan agreement puts the healthy forests legislation within reach of the White House," he said.
Pombo added the measure would create a "historic paradigm shift in the way courts consider legal challenges to hazardous-fuels reduction projects, mandating that the courts weigh the environmental consequences of management inaction when the specter of catastrophic wildfire looms."
The measure would limit preliminary injunctions on challenges to thinning projects to 60 days, subject to renewal.
It would authorize $760 million a year for tree-thinning projects, up from the current $340 million.
It would target at least half the money to thinning projects in areas closest to inhabited areas. Supporters of the agreement said it also would protect old-growth trees.
The legislation had been debated for a year, but it gained momentum after the recent California fires, which scorched about 740,000 acres, destroyed more than 3,500 structures and claimed 24 lives.
Amy Mall, senior forest specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization, said the measure "doesn't guarantee the work that needs to be done to protect communities in Southern California."
She added that the language was not strong enough to ensure that thinning projects "really would be focused on areas immediately around homes."