- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

Republican and Democratic senators yesterday said they will aggressively pursue legislation to allow the thinning of trees in forests threatened by catastrophic wildfires.
The measure would allow exemptions from environmental laws and court appeals and is modeled after a spending-bill amendment attached by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for the Democrat's home state of South Dakota.
Mr. Daschle initially drew the ire of lawmakers when he legislated such exemptions for a 700-acre timber sale in the Black Hills, first reported by The Washington Times.
Westerners in the House and Senate quickly switched tactics and started planning to give similar exemptions to their home states.
"Precedence was established when the majority leader and we think he did a great job suggested a way for his forest to be immune from some of the processes that take an inordinate amount of time," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican.
More than a dozen senators attended a Capitol Hill press conference just hours before adjourning for the August recess to argue the urgent need to clear fuel buildup in national forests.
A spokesman for Mr. Daschle said they have not seen the proposed legislation, but warned that any approach to thinning without consensus on the local level would not work.
"As we saw in the South Dakota model, the way to get to a deal that will result in thinning is to use an approach that involves all interested parties and arrive at a negotiated solution that will keep the issue out of the courts," spokesman Jay Carson said.
The Daschle amendment exempts the timber activity from the National Forest Management Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The activity is not subject to notice, comment or appeal requirements under the Appeals Reform Act, or judicial review by any U.S. court.
The Sierra Club and Wilderness Society endorsed the overall plan, which adds more than 3,000 acres to wilderness designations, but opposed the exemptions. The Wilderness Society vowed to fight any further exemptions on Capitol Hill.
"This initiative is something that deserves our attention. It is timely and absolutely needed," said Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Stevens vowed to fund the measure, which includes additional spending on firefighting.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said problems leading to this summer's deadly wildfires were not created overnight and tree thinning must begin quickly.
"These projects are too often delayed by lengthy environmental and bureaucratic review, creating even more hazardous overgrowth that, in the end, could pose more danger to the environment than any thinning project ever could," Mrs. Feinstein said.
The measure is sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and chairman of the Senate Resources subcommittee on public lands and forests.
More than 1,800 homes have been destroyed and 15 persons killed as a result of the fires, which have burned more than 4 million acres. That would equal a two-mile-wide strip from Washington to Los Angeles of "burned charred, destroyed" forest land, Mr. Craig said.
Mr. Wyden said he will try to forge a wider consensus among Democrats and Republicans during the August recess.
"It is absolutely critical, on a bipartisan basis [that] we move aggressively with a fuels reduction program to end this devastation we are seeing in the West," Mr. Wyden said.
Congress typically looks at wildfires as a Western issue, but Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, said "It's a national issue because we are all going to pay for it as taxpayers." The cost of the fires, including damages and firefighting, is likely to top $1 billion.

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