- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

Southern California is no longer afire, and the absence of burning images has led some Senate Democrats to resume their obstruction of the Healthy Forests bill. Such delays are dangerously shortsighted, considering the tinderbox conditions that pervade the West. Senate and House leaders must find a compromise on the measure so that some of the danger can be reduced.

The Senate passed its version of the legislation on Oct. 30. While it was similar to the bill that passed the House in May, there are a few important differences. Both bills restrict the number of reviews that forest thinning projects are subject to under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However, the Senate version allows three NEPA reviews, while the House only allows one. The House version calls for court reviews of injunctions against logging projects to be heard within 45 days, while the Senate version gives courts 60 days. The Senate bill also contains several riders that have little to do with thinning trees, such as a prohibition on the interstate transport of knives and gaffs used in cockfighting and a provision limiting use of the word “ginseng” in food labeling.

A conference between the chambers is likely to result in an acceptable compromise. However, in what amounts to a silent filibuster, Senate Democrats have refused to name conferees. Democrats say they will not do so until House leaders agree to simply rubber stamp the Senate version of the bill.

This last obstruction should not be allowed to kill the bill. A compromise seems within reach, since House Democrats and Republicans are anxious for a deal. Last week, Democrat George Miller, a former chairman of the Resources Committee, said on the House floor, “I hope that this [legislation] would not get sucked into this whirlpool of partisanship and the shutting down of conference committees, because this is a matter that is desperately important to so many of our communities in the timberlands and the wildlands of the United States.”

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden have suggested that a compromise could be reached through the same informal conversations that led to passage of the Senate bill. Those talks should go forward. However, at some point, conferees will have to meet in a formal setting.

It should not take additional fires and the loss of life to secure the common sense protections that Healthy Forests will provide. About 70 million acres of land are believed to be at extreme risk of wildfires. Democrats should cease their obstructionism so that the Healthy Forests conference can go forward.

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