- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The House voted yesterday to accelerate tree cutting on 20 million acres of overgrown woodlands prone to the wildfires that scorched millions of acres across 15 states last year.

President Bush supported the bill, which was approved 256-170, and urged the Senate to act on it quickly.

“For too many years, bureaucratic tangles and bad forest policy have prevented foresters from keeping our woodlands healthy and safe,” Mr. Bush said. “This year’s fire outlook seems less severe, and that’s good news, yet the danger persists, and many of our forests are facing a higher-than-normal risk of costly and catastrophic fires.”

Democrats and environmental groups said the legislation would let logging companies cut old-growth trees over large stretches of forest while not doing anything to reduce the threat of fire for people living near the forests.

“It is yet another example of the Bush administration rolling back environmental protections,” said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democrat. “Now is the time for those who understand how important the environment is for future generations to stand up to the administration.”

Last year, 7 million acres of forest land in 15 states burned in the second-worst fire season in 50 years, destroying 815 structures and killing 23 firefighters. Huge fires in Arizona and Colorado scorched forests where environmentalists had tied up projects meant to reduce the fire threat in court litigation.

In addition, Mr. Bush said, five Western states — Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and California — have lost 47,000 timber jobs and 400 mills since 1989. Fire-suppression efforts last year cost the federal government $1.6 billion.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican, lets the Forest Service accelerate fuel reduction projects on 20 million acres of forests with the most severe fire risks, either because they are overgrown or because they have been infested by insects or disease.

The areas would be exempt from some of the normal environmental studies and appeals would be limited. It also directs judges to expedite any appeals.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said the bill would let the Forest Service treat just a fraction of the at-risk acreage using the expedited process.

“This is not a massive logging bill. This is perhaps an under-reaction to the massive problem on federal land,” he said. “If we do not pass this legislation the abuse of those environmental laws by extremists will cause us to burn the heart out of our nation’s forests.”

The bill would achieve many of the goals Mr. Bush outlined last summer during a visit to a charred forest in Oregon. The administration is also expected to issue new rules within the next week revising its forest appeals process.

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