- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Tree-thinning projects to prevent catastrophic forest fires and widespread insect infestations are being widely appealed by environmental groups but are rarely upheld, a federal audit released yesterday said.

Nearly 60 percent of all fuel-reduction activities in national forests that could be appealed were done so by special interest groups, according to the report of raw data prepared by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Of the nearly 800 decisions to reduce forest-fire fuels, 305 cases covering 1.7 million acres could have been appealed by the public. More than 80 environmental groups and 39 private individuals filed appeals on 180 projects.

Because decisions can be appealed multiple times, 267 appeals were placed on those projects, the GAO said.

The 84 interest groups, which include the Sierra Club, Alliance for Wild Rockies and Forest Conservation Council, appeared 432 times as parties to the appeals.

“Of those appealed, 133 decisions required no change before implementation; 35 required changes; and 12 were withdrawn and it is unclear whether changes were required,” the GAO findings said.

The report demonstrates that the appeals needlessly delay federal efforts to prevent wildfires, and if the process is not streamlined, millions of acres will be lost this summer, said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

“The American people will no longer tolerate management by wildfire,” Mr. Domenici said.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, said environmental groups are more interested in preserving a political scare tactic than protecting forests from wildfires.

“This finding is nothing short of appalling, especially when you think of the catastrophic losses suffered in last year’s horrific fire season alone,” Mr. Pombo said.

“These were not only losses of forest, endangered species, and wildlife habitat; they were losses of human life and family property,” he added.

Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club, a liberal environmental organization, called the report “political spin” commissioned by Republicans to back up forest legislation headed for a House vote next week.

The House is preparing to consider legislation Tuesday that seeks to speed up efforts to reduce trees and brush from overgrown forests.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health, would streamline environmental studies and curtail appeals on as many as 20 million acres.

“We see these as outright commercial timber sales the Forest Service wants to call fuel-reduction projects,” Mr. Cosgrove said.

The yearlong healthy forest initiative supported by President Bush would expedite the appeals process to begin thinning projects throughout the West, particularly in areas designated at “catastrophic” risk of wildfires.

Mr. Cosgrove said that the groups or individuals who file the appeals is not the issue, “it’s still the same law that allows citizens … to be able to have access to their government.”

Limiting the appeals process, he said, would be “a ridiculous abuse of public trust.”

Republicans cite congressional testimony by the Forest Service last year on one particular project as evidence that appeals need to be limited.

The tree-thinning area was near a metropolitan city and a primary source of water and was forced to endure an 800-step decision-making process and took three years to implement.

“After all of the environmental spin about focusing projects on protecting communities, now we find that environmental groups are aggressively challenging community protection projects,” Mr. McInnis said.

Last summer’s fires scorched nearly 7 million acres costing $1.6 billion, compared with nearly 4 million acres burned in 2001, which totaled more than $900 million.

The GAO report is proof that national forests need to be more actively managed, “although watching millions of acres of our precious forests turned into charcoal last year should have been evidence enough,” said Rep. Jim Gibbons, Nevada Republican.

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