- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

President Bush wants to ease regulations and allow timber clearing in national forests to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires now raging across the West.
Mr. Bush will make the announcement today during a stop in Oregon, where forest fires have burned nearly 600,000 acres this summer. More than 1 million acres have been scorched nationwide.
The House and Senate began drafting legislation similar to the administration's proposal after The Washington Times reported last month that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, had exempted a timber sale in his home state from all environmental regulations and court appeals.
Spokesmen for Mr. Daschle defended his proposal, saying it was approved by all parties including environmentalists, and reflected months of work. Mr. Daschle, however, opposes extending the exemptions to other states.
In a conference call last night with reporters, a senior Bush administration official outlined the forest-health initiative, which favors thinning the forest mechanically over prescribed burning. The official confirmed the proposal is based on the precedent-setting Daschle exemption.
Thinning would allow surrounding trees to remain green, as opposed to burning an entire area, the official said.
"The administration would like to move towards more active management of the forests," the official said. "Forests today are in some cases 25 times as dense as they were before Western settlement. Today's fires are much more catastrophic because the forests are more dense and the fires burn hotter."
The House and Senate will begin moving legislation containing similar exemptions when Congress returns from the August recess.
Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said the administration's proposal is "very similar" to their bill.
"We are very pleased the president is drawing national attention to what has become a crisis situation on our national forests," said Mr. Craig.
"Bad public policies have brought on these conditions of huge fuel loading and dead and dying trees, and that is why we are now seeing broad-based support for some direct action. Our skies have been full of smoke since June, and will be until the snow flies this winter," the Idaho Republican said.
Thinning would be limited to 30 million acres inside 300 million acres of forest lands that are classified as bug infested or with dead or dying trees ripe for fires, Mr. Craig said.
Key Democrats are supporting the effort to ease logging restrictions and allow thinning to prevent fires, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and forests.
"The president's full-scale engagement in tackling the West's wildfire crisis is a watershed event, and it couldn't have come at a better time," said Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health.
"With President Bush leading the charge, and Democrats joining the reform bandwagon in droves, the political worm has turned against those defending the disastrous status quo on our national forests," Mr. McInnis said.
Environmentalists criticized the administration and the congressional plan yesterday, calling it a "smoke screen" to allow timber cutting they say will not prevent forest fires. They say prescribed burns should instead be used to reduce fuel buildup and restore forest health.
"The scientific evidence is clear," said William H. Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society.
"Our limited resources need to be focused on the areas where our communities and forests intersect, not on increased logging far from homes," Mr. Meadows said.
The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club supported the overall Daschle amendment because it included new wilderness designations to protect some forest land, but say they opposed the exemptions from laws and regulations and will fight congressional action.
"No community deserves to be left at risk of wildfire," said Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director.
"The Forest Service should focus its people and resources on community protection zones, not let them be diverted to lower-priority backcountry projects," Mr. Pope said.
Instead of cutting the trees feeding the forest fires, the green groups want Congress to spend $10 billion toward fireproof homes and to restrict tree thinning to areas near private homes.
Environmentalists are gearing up to oppose the bill in whatever form it takes.
"Calls are urgently needed to alert your senators to this threat" of logging, said an e-mail memo from the American Lands group to its members.

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