- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

Republican lawmakers yesterday began capitalizing on unprecedented legislation by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that exempts only his state from environmental rules and lawsuits in an effort to prevent forest fires.

After initially criticizing Mr. Daschle for quietly adding the measure to a spending bill, Republicans are now praising the action and hoping to get similar exemptions in their wildfire-prone states.

"After supporting bold steps to protect South Dakota communities, we hope and trust that you will support broader efforts to contain the rampant threat of catastrophic wildfire on forests across the nation," said two Republican leaders and 28 other lawmakers in a letter to Mr. Daschle.

Mr. Daschle's measure was discovered in a spending bill by lawmakers this week, just before being passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, and now awaits President Bush's signature. It would allow the logging of timber that can fuel wildfires in the South Dakota Black Hills.

"After crafting an expedited solution for the Black Hills, opposing similar solutions for other vulnerable forests in the West would smack of hypocrisy," said the letter written by Rep. James V. Hansen of Utah, chairman of the House Resources Committee, and Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado chairman, of the subcommittee on forest and forest health.

Mr. Daschle said the legislation was urgently needed and is supported by the timber industry, Bush administration and environmentalists.

"Because the Black Hills agreement was locally negotiated and enjoys the support of key stakeholders in this deal, it will lead to swift thinning, not more inaction caused by lawsuits," Mr. Daschle said in announcing the measure.

The language allows a 700-acre timber sale to be exempt from the National Forest Management Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and are not subject to notice, comment or appeal requirements under the Appeals Reform Act, or judicial review by any U.S. court. NEPA is the most strident law to fulfill, but a staffer for Mr. Daschle said 95 percent of the work on that law had been completed.

The Sierra Club and the National Wilderness Society participated in the agreement and signed off on it, said Jay Carson, Mr. Daschle's spokesman.

The Sierra Club did not return calls for comment, but Michael Francis, director of national forest programs at the National Wilderness Society, said his organization "supported the settlement agreement but did not support exemptions from environmental laws."

Environmentalists support the measure because they won several concessions, including more than 3,000 new acres of wilderness designations, no new road construction, no timber harvesting in the Beaver Park roadless areas and wildlife standards on logging activities, Mr. Francis said.

When Congress attempts to extend the provision, "we will be on the Hill opposing any wholesale or broad exemptions from environmental laws," Mr. Francis said.

Mr. Francis said the settlement process has been ongoing for two years, and the exemptions were the only way to expedite wildfire prevention.

In the Senate, lawmakers are looking to attach exemption language for forests nationwide into an Interior spending bill scheduled for debate next week.

In the House, Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana Republican, said the South Dakota set-aside is "49 states short," and he has written legislation to be introduced today to extend exemptions to all federal forest lands at risk of catastrophic wildfire.

"If this legislative maneuvering represents a newfound conviction on the part of Senator Daschle, I wholeheartedly welcome him aboard."

Another tactic under consideration is forcing Democrats to vote against exemptions, one burning forest at a time, to use as a campaign wedge issue this fall.

A wildfire in the Sequoia National Forest has forced the evacuation of about 1,000 people, destroyed more than 50,000 acres and yesterday moved within a mile of the ancient stand of trees. Rep. George P. Radanovich, California Republican, demanded an immediate exemption in his district "so that the magnificent trees don't end up like charcoal."

Mr. Carson said Mr. Daschle "would welcome following the same process of bringing everyone to the table and working out a deal."

"This issue should not be criticized, but made a model of," Mr. Carson said.

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