- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

As the smoking embers from this year's catastrophic forest-fire season slowly fade, so have the administration's hopes for enacting sensible forest-fire management policy, thanks in large part to Senate Democrats, and in particular, to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
The brunt of the blame must fall to Mr. Daschle, since the plan was his to begin with. Just before Congress went on its August recess, Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times revealed that Mr. Daschle tucked legislation into a spending bill exempting some South Dakota forest-thinning projects from environmental regulations and lawsuits.
The senator's rationale was simple: The high danger from forest fires in exempted areas did not allow for the lengthy litigation (usually from environmental groups) that invariably accompanies such tree-thining projects. There's little doubt that Mr. Daschle is correct, not just in South Dakota, but across the West and the South.
Mr. Daschle recognized that, under some circumstances, expedited tree-thinning is necessary to save lives. The tinderbox conditions that have permitted 65,000 fires and the incineration of 6.5 million acres of Western forest land this summer and the loss of 20 firefighters are as much a consequence of record droughts as they are the unnatural buildup of fuel in those forests, caused by the federal government's policy of quick fire extinction.
So, it's no wonder that Republicans seized on Mr. Daschle's proposal. Last month, President Bush set out a "Healthy Forests Initiative," which would expedite fuel reductions in high fire-hazard areas. It would also permit federal agencies to enter into long-term stewardship contracts with entities that would be responsible for forest management. It was a sensible, much-needed proposal, vetted by a broad array of state and local officials, forest managers and other stakeholders, and championed in the Senate by Larry Craig, Idaho Republican. His amendment would allow the thinning of about one-third of the 33 million acres believed to be at risk of catastrophic fire, and Mr. Craig attempted to attach his measure to the Interior appropriations bill. But Senate Democrats saw fit to send the amendment up in smoke, a job made easier by the fact that Mr. Daschle required a supermajority of 60 votes for passage. Mr. Craig may try again, and administration officials remain hopeful that some sort of compromise could be worked out.
The Senate should see fit to pass some sort of tree-thinning, livesaving measure before it leaves for the election recess. As Montana Sen. Conrad Burns pointed out in a recent meeting with editors and reporters of The Times, it is inexplicable that environmental extremists and liberal elites "people who don't have dirt under their fingernails" see fit to enforce forest policy, instead of leaving things to the people who actually own and work on the land. Hopefully, Mr. Daschle will see fit to allow passage of the forest reform that Westerners are, in too many cases, literally dying for.


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