- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

DENVER To the list of reasons for this year's surge in Western wildfires the Forest Service wants to add another: environmental activists.

Environmental appeals delayed 48 percent of the agency's fire-suppression projects in fiscal 2001 and 2002, thereby stalling efforts to clear the brush and small trees that fuel the catastrophic wildfires plaguing the West, according to an internal Forest Service report obtained by The Washington Times.

The report, slated for release today, found that 155 of the agency's 326 plans to log overgrown, high-risk national forests were stymied by appeals. In Arizona and New Mexico, sites of some of this summer's worst wildfires, that figure rose to 73 percent, and climbed to 100 percent in the Pacific Northwest.

Many environmental groups have pushed for a hands-off approach that allows thinning only around houses and other structures, and that favors prescribed burns over cutting trees.

But Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican, argued that such an approach has led to the massive tree buildup that has fueled this year's record-breaking fire season and placed millions of acres at risk of wildfire.

"For those who have spent the last several weeks downplaying the impact of appeals and litigation on forest management, this report is bucket of cold water in the face," said Mr. McInnis, who chairs the House Resources subcommittee on forest and forest health.

"These numbers are a scathing indictment of the process that governs management of the nation's forest, and a harsh reminder of just how relentlessly ideological some environmental litigants have become," said Mr. McInnis, whose panel is scheduled to hold a hearing today on the 2002 wildfire season.

Environmentalists attacked the report yesterday as a thinly disguised attempt to blame them for the fires while bolstering the struggling timber industry. Commercial logging companies typically bid on forest-thinning projects and sell the felled trees as lumber.

"This study is about as solid as an Arthur Andersen financial statement," said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies in Boulder, Colo.

The Forest Service report appears to contradict an August 2001 study by the General Accounting Office that found that only 1 percent of fire-suppression projects had been appealed. Green groups have cited that figure as proof their appeals had little to do with this year's wildfires.

But Mr. McInnis, who commissioned the GAO study, said it contained several flaws. It found that only 20 of 1,671 fuel-reduction projects were appealed in 2001, but failed to take into account that many of them had already run through the appeals process.

In addition, some of the projects considered by the GAO were exempt from appeals. At Mr. McInnis' request, the GAO is preparing a more comprehensive report on the appeals process.

Environmentalists countered that the Forest Service study has its own flaws. The report only includes "mechanical" fire-suppression projects, or those that rely on logging, not burning. Such projects are much more likely to be appealed by environmentalists, who see thinning as a sop to the timber industry.

"They removed from the GAO report any project that had to do with prescribed fires, which is a perfectly legitimate way to thin the forest," said Mr. Zukoski.

Mark Rey, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said the agency relies on thinning more than burning because it's more versatile and less dangerous.

"You can't prescribe burn where there are houses or high fuel loads," he said. "In a large number of areas, we'll need to use mechanical treatment before we can even do prescribed burns safely."

With 3.1 million acres burned so far this summer, calls for more thinning and for streamlining the appeals process are growing louder.

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