- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

The Bush administration yesterday presented Congress with an initiative to protect national forests from wildfires by easing strict environmental regulations to allow thinning dead and dying trees.

"This legislative proposal would give us management tools we desperately need to help get our forests and communities out of the crisis they are in," said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

The administration's plan, and three bills also introduced in the House Resources Committee yesterday, are based on legislation authored by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, to exempt a timber sale in his home state from environmental regulations and court appeals.

The exemption rider was attached to a spending bill, and was first reported by The Washington Times.

"If our Forest Service wasn't so tangled in bureaucratic knots, they would have been able to take appropriate prevention measures. We are spending millions of dollars a year on fire retention, and we need to be spending it on fire prevention," said Rep. James V. Hansen, Resources Committee chairman and Utah Republican.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said the 10-year collaborative process will involve local community involvement.

"The plan sets forth the blueprint for making communities and the environment safer with active forest management," Mrs. Norton said.

Mr. Daschle said the administration plan would differ from his, because environmental groups signed off on his proposal, which included the designation of several thousands of acres as wilderness areas and off-limits to tree cutting.

The Sierra Club and Wilderness Society did support the overall plan, but spokesman said they opposed the Daschle exemption and will oppose the Bush plan and House bills. Western senators, with the support of Democrats, will attempt to attach the exemption to the Interior spending bill next week.

"The Bush plan amasses all control in the hands of federal decision makers and excludes not just environmentalists but all other stakeholders as well," said Greg Aplet, forest ecologist with the Wilderness Society.

"And by calling for the suspension of environmental laws, the Bush plan would make the agencies unaccountable to the public or the courts," Mr. Aplet said.

Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst with the Wilderness Society said court appeals are not the problem.

"The General Accounting Office found that only 1 percent of all fuels reduction projects were appealed last year. The administration should stop using appeals as a red herring and focus on protecting homes and lives from wildfire," Mr. Anderson said.

Nearly 6 million acres of land have burned during this summer's destructive wildfire season.

"Looking backward, this wildfire crisis is unprecedented in the last several decades. Looking forward, this fiery carnage is going to continue for decades unless we take bold and decisive steps," said Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and one of the bill's authors.

The Bush plan would expedite the reduction of hazardous fuels dead and dying trees that pose the greatest risk to people, communities, and the environment.

It would eliminate the Appeals Reform Act which was attached to a 1993 spending bill and heaped red tape on the Forest Service when handling appeals of forest projects.

The other bills that mirror the Daschle exemption were written by Republican Reps. John Shadegg of Arizona and Denny Rehberg of Montana.

"We must have strong, common-sense laws to protect the environment, there's no question about that. Yet those same laws should not be so burdensome that they prevent local forest managers from implementing common-sense land management solutions," Mr. Rehberg said.

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