- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has rejoined a fight over beetle infestation in South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest after accusations that he was appeasing environmentalists amid an increasing tinderbox of dead trees.
Mr. Daschle recently told local officials in a letter that he was recusing himself from any issues in two affected regions of the national forest because he and his wife, Linda, are purchasing vacation property nearby. He said ethics lawyers advised him that getting involved could be a conflict of interest.
"My ethics attorneys, who help me stay out of trouble, told me that if I get involved in creating legislation or policy-making in these areas, I could face a legal challenge in court or even have to answer to charges in front of the Senate ethics committee," Mr. Daschle had said.
Last night, Mr. Daschle said he had changed his mind and decided not to buy the property. He said his constituents had persuaded him to get involved in the issue.
"I respect greatly the opinion of those South Dakotans who believe my participation is important to the resolution of these forest-management issues," Mr. Daschle said. "Therefore, I have decided that, given the conflict-of-interest issues raised by Senate rules, I should set aside for now personal plans for the purchase of land in the area."
His earlier decision to sidestep the controversy had confounded local residents and the state's Republican attorney general, Mark Barnett, who wants Congress to declare a disaster area so the state can remove the dead trees and prevent a conflagration before the summer wildfire season.
"We can't afford to lose him in the fight," said Mr. Barnett earlier this week.
Mr. Barnett, who is running for governor, said, "He either needs to stop negotiating on that [vacation] property and get back in the fight, or he needs to get a better ethics opinion. The one thing we cannot afford to have him do is take a walk. The Black Hills Forest is our greatest tourist attraction."
Daschle spokesman Jay Carson had called the accusations that Mr. Daschle was avoiding a tough decision "nothing short of ridiculous."
"He's attempting to hold himself to the highest possible ethical standard," Mr. Carson said. "It's unfortunate that some candidates for political office have chosen to make a political issue out of it."
Mr. Barnett said of the festering dispute: "The bugs are in charge."
The bugs are mountain pine beetles, which have killed thousands of ponderosa pines and other conifers in the national forest in recent years. The discolored stands of dead trees eventually collapse into tangled jumbles on the forest floor known as "jackstraw," which pose a fire hazard, especially after relatively dry winters such as South Dakota experienced this year.
A recent report to the state Legislature showed that 32,000 acres of federal forest in the Black Hills are in danger of a major forest fire. Each acre contains about 75 tons of fuel; a healthy forest would have about 7 tons of fuel per acre.
The issue for years has pitted environmentalists against property owners. Groups such as the Sierra Club argue that the national forest, which is already heavily developed, should be disturbed as little as possible and that clearing the infested trees could open the way for logging.
The U.S. Forest Service has proposed a plan to clear some of the dead trees, but environmentalists have blocked that proposal in court. Property owners say the impasse is inviting a catastrophic forest fire and threatening 8,000 homes nearby.
Mr. Daschle's initial recusal angered local residents, who said he was more interested in satisfying environmentalists for his presidential ambitions in 2004. Pennington County Commissioner Ken Davis accused Mr. Daschle of finding "a slick way of shirking his responsibilities to the people of South Dakota."
"He voted to send billions of dollars to the airline industry his wife represents [as a lobbyist] without a 'conflict of interest,'" Archie Gray of Spearfish, S.D., wrote in the Rapid City Journal. "The truth is that Senator Daschle is dropping out to avoid having to take sides. When he runs for president … he cannot have a record of siding against the environmental-extremist community because they will be a large portion of his left-wing liberal base."
Mr. Carson said any attempt by Mr. Daschle to influence policy in the two wilderness areas near his property could have been viewed as an effort to directly affect his investment. The Daschles had planned to buy land and intended to build on it later, according to Mr. Carson, who did not know the purchase price.
The Beaver Park wilderness area near the Vanocker Canyon property is only 5,000 acres out of the 1.3-million acre national forest, Mr. Carson said.
Mr. Daschle will address issues in other areas of the national forest "on a case-by-case basis," Mr. Carson said.
Mr. Barnett agreed that Mr. Daschle helped to bring about the settlement last year of a lawsuit in a similar timber-removal dispute involving environmental groups.
"So you know that this isn't just a partisan attack, no question in my mind that Daschle had a hand in helping that thing get settled so that some of the diseased trees could be removed," Mr. Barnett said. "But we need a permanent fix. I'm telling you, that forest is going to burn, and people are going to get hurt, and property's going to get lost, and I am unable to see that as a management plan."
The Sierra Club has said that beetles and forest fires are part of nature and should not be interfered with.
Mr. Barnett said Mr. Daschle should look for a property elsewhere, and in the meantime, he offered to allow the senator to use his cabin in Spearfish Canyon.
"I'll give him a key," Mr. Barnett said. "It's a nice little place. It's clean. It's got a great view. I won't charge him a nickel. But I can't have him out of that fight. He has the kind of muscle that it takes to get [the wilderness areas] declared disasters."


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