- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

While wildfires have been consuming large swaths of the West, a bipartisan group of senators have been consumed with finding a way to reduce the risk of such fires through an agreement on the president’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

The deal has not been set because a few details still need to be settled. However, the senators appear to have done so, following a long series of negotiations that began after the Senate Agriculture Committee passed the bill in July. The group was centered around Republicans Larry Craig, Thad Cochran, Michael Crapo and Pete Domenici, and Democrats Dianne Feinstein, Blanche Lincoln and Ron Wyden, although they consulted with a number of others, including Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl. The Bush administration was also represented.

The basic agreement is apparently based on trading greater protection for some forest acres in return for expediting the thinning of others. It provides the first-ever statutory protection for old growth trees, rather than the protections they have had by regulatory interpretation and presidential directive. Those new protections will require the updating of authorized fuel reduction activities in old growth areas. As in the House version of the bill, the compromise will limit tree-thinning to 20 million acres of federal lands, but unlike the House bill, it will require that 50 percent of thinning funds be spent around communities threatened by wildfires. On those acres, authorized fuel-reduction projects will be expedited through streamlined environmental and judicial reviews. For instance, those suing to stop tree-thinning projects must file suit in the jurisdictions where the projects are planned. The compromise also will limit the delays caused by court injunctions. For instance, a bill (S. 1352) offered earlier this year by Sens. Feinstein and Wyden, requires a judge to hear the case within 60 days after a temporary injunction has been issued.

Reducing the review time required for fuel-reduction projects is critical. According to U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, forest managers spend up to 60 percent of their time and energy doing paperwork — preparing and planning projects instead of preventing or putting out fires. Moreover, the paperwork required by lawsuits can delay desperately needed projects for years. Enormous environmental harm often results, perhaps best exemplified by Colorado’s Hayman fire, which consumed 137,000 acres and 133 homes through an area where a planned thinning project had long been held up.

Already this year, wildfires have consumed more than 3 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Since 2000, they have destroyed more than 22 million acres, and fighting them has cost taxpayers more than $4.7 billion. This year’s relatively moderate fire season could be followed by a heavy one, since approximately 190 million acres are thought to be vulnerable to wildfires.

That risk will be reduced if the compromise holds. Parties to it are reportedly feeling vulnerable — Republicans because they have agreed to additional forest protections which could hurt their constituents in lumber industries, and Democrats because they have agreed to fuel reductions opposed by some environmental organizations. Fearing that the conference compromise could be rewritten past the breaking point, Democrats have called upon the administration to publicly endorse it. While the administration is pleased with the compromise, a public blessing might be a bit premature, since House Republicans have not yet seen the legislation.

However, having come so far, members of Congress must find a way to finalize the agreement — even if it means a bit more give and take between the House and Senate. As Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said in an interview, “It is important that we have all the tools in play to bring the forests back to healthy conditions.” Legislative tools for better forest stewardship have long been lacking, and Congress should move the initiative to the president as soon as an acceptable compromise can be clinched.