- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

The Bush administration yesterday announced a plan to remove hazardous timber and restore forest health on federal lands under extreme risk of catastrophic wildfires.

The proposed regulations for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management follow environmental rules established by the Clinton administration for a separate agency the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and could affect more than 100 million acres.

No new roads would be built. Activities would include timber removal and prescribed fires, but would be excluded in wilderness areas and forests where endangered species are established. Herbicides and pesticides would not be used.

"This summer's fire season was a wake-up call to everyone who loves our public lands and wants to protect communities at risk," said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "We face a crisis of forest and rangeland health of unprecedented proportions, where millions of acres of land desperately need more effective management to promote ecosystem restoration."

"These common-sense steps will allow federal agencies to spend millions of dollars a year on environmental restoration and conservation rather than needless paperwork. The result will be safer communities, safer firefighters and healthier forest ecosystems," Mr. Connaughton said.

The plan establishes "categorical exclusions" to cut red tape and limit the appeals process to clear dead and dying timber, or fuels, that officials say spread bug infestation and spark wildfires.

Timber projects would still be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, but biologists also would have to look at the environmental and economic consequences of not logging. The proposed changes are subject to a 50-day public comment period before they can win approval through the regulatory process.

Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, called the announcement "the latest ax to fall on environmental protections and public participation."

"Obviously President Bush has interpreted the recent elections as a mandate to pollute, cut and drill," Mr. Miller said.

The announcement drew praise from Western lawmakers, who say past policies have led to frivolous lawsuits and hobbled federal agencies.

"We have two choices: Act swiftly this winter, or do little and next summer spend another $1 billion fighting ferocious wildfires that eat up another 7 million acres of forests and habitat, destroying homes and killing wildlife," said Rep. James V. Hansen, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee. "We choose to act."

A measure with similar provisions was progressing in the House earlier this year before Congress adjourned, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, blocked it in his chamber.

"The environmental community embraced categorical exclusions as a scaled-back alternative to our legislation this summer," said Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health.

"I'll be interested to see if that remains the case," Mr. McInnis said.

The Republican initiative was pursued after Mr. Daschle legislated exemptions from environmental laws and regulations for a timber project in his state to prevent fires.

Wildfires ravaged 7.1 million acres of public and private lands last summer an area larger than the states of Maryland and Rhode Island combined and 21 firefighters were killed. Thousands of structures burned and tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and communities.

The National Association of State Foresters (NASF) endorsed the plan and called it a "measured response" to restore forest health.

"States already have the capability for swift response and this initiative will finally allow federal agencies to act more quickly," said James L. Sledge, NASF president and state forester for Mississippi.

"The Healthy Forests Initiative is not about logging," said Jim Hubbard, chairman of the Western Group of State Foresters and the state forester for Colorado. "It's about achieving land management objectives to reduce risk to life and property and implementing those objectives before we run out of time."

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