- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

President Bush yesterday signed into law the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to help prevent catastrophic wildfires, which this year killed 23 firefighters and destroyed 7 million acres.

“We’re seeing the tragic consequences brought by years of unwise forest policy,” Mr. Bush said. “We face a major national challenge and we’re acting together to solve the challenge.”

The law cuts bureaucratic red tape and expedites judicial reviews for forest-thinning projects on 20 million acres of land devastated by insect infestation or covered with dead and dying timber at risk of fire.

Environmentalists said the law was a giveaway to the timber industry and that it provides too little protection for private homes.

“The common-sense solution is to prioritize funds to thin brush and small trees around homes and communities,” said Carl Pope, executive director of Sierra Club.

Mr. Bush signed the legislation during a ceremony at the Agriculture Department surrounded by more than a dozen “Hot Shot” firefighters from California, where fires ravaged 750,000 acres in October.

“This act of Congress sets the right priorities for the management of our nation’s forest, focusing on woodlands that are closest to communities and on places where the risk to wildlife and the environment is the greatest,” Mr. Bush said.

Chuck Leavell, keyboard player for the Rolling Stones and a Georgia tree farmer, lobbied Congress on behalf of the president’s bill and played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the ceremony. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman noted that the occasion was the first for a president to have a Rolling Stone perform the opening act.

House Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican, said the bill signing marked a principal accomplishment for Congress and a key tenet of the Bush administration’s environmental policy.

“This is the strongest environmental protection bill signed into law since the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act,” Mr. Pombo said.

Mr. Bush first called for the legislation in 2001 after then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Democrat, quietly slipped language into a spending bill exempting his home state of South Dakota from environmental regulations and lawsuits.

First reported by The Washington Times, the move prompted Western lawmakers and Mr. Bush to seek similar exemptions nationwide. The bill easily passed the House but was blocked in the Senate until an agreement was reached last month.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, who was instrumental in negotiating the agreement, said the law gives communities and government more flexibility to work together. Courts also will have to weigh the effect on the ecosystem in the long term if thinning is denied.

House sponsor Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health, called the ceremony a “historic moment.”

“For far too long we have watched these infernos threaten our lives and destroy irreplaceable natural treasures in their haphazard and destructive paths — and for too long we have debated how to combat this growing threat,” he said.

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