Union Tribune

October 30, 2003

Wildfires boost forest-thinning bill
Senate begins debate on measure with a final vote as early as today


WASHINGTON With California's scorched landscape providing a dramatic backdrop, the Senate started debating a forest-thinning measure yesterday that supporters argue would reduce the threat of wildfires.

Opponents raised a host of objections, saying the legislation would not do enough to protect residential areas and would make old-growth forests vulnerable to logging.

But the momentum appeared to be with advocates of the measure, who repeatedly pointed to the devastation in California to buttress their arguments.

The bill would speed the clearing of brush and debris from an estimated 20 million acres of vulnerable federal land nationwide and assist similar projects on nonfederal land, while limiting environmental reviews and legal challenges.

A final vote could come as early today. Congressional negotiators would then attempt to work out major differences between the Senate bill and a related measure passed by the House in May.

"We have terrible fires burning, every day burning homes . . . the victim of excess vegetation and hazardous fuels that have built up over many years and have not been removed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who helped negotiate the legislation with a bipartisan group of Western lawmakers. "We owe it to our communities to do the best we can to protect them from catastrophic fire."

But some lawmakers, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., say the proposal would not provide enough funding to rid residential areas of wildfire hazards.

They say at least 85 percent of federal funding for such cleanups should go to areas near communities, instead of the 50 percent called for in the legislation.

Some experts also questioned whether the projects that would be authorized would do much to prevent the wind-and drought-fed chaparral fires that have raged on mostly private land in San Diego and across Southern California.

"These places where most of the fires are occurring are not broad stands of forest," said Tom Scott, a natural resources specialist at the University of California Riverside.

Feinstein said the legislation would promote prescribed burns, the use of fire-resistant building materials and other community protection initiatives in residential areas dominated by chaparral.

"These funds are available to be used in brush areas like chaparral as well as in forest areas," she said, standing beside a dramatic picture of a wall of flame approaching houses in Scripps Ranch.

Decades of fire suppression and population growth in wilderness areas have left them choked with combustible vegetation.

Debate on thinning the growth has simmered for months. But the devastating fires in California propelled the issue to the top of the congressional agenda this week.

In related actions, House and Senate appropriators approved $2.9 billion to prevent and fight forest fires in the fiscal year 2004, which began Oct. 1, and $500 million to assist with fire relief in California.

The Senate legislation would authorize $760 million a year for thinning of forests and brushlands, up from $340 million.

Environmentalists object to provisions that would place limits on judicial review of the projects, including a 60-day limit on preliminary injunctions and a requirement that courts weigh the environmental benefits of a project against potential fire risks.

But Feinstein and other supporters say the bill balances environmental concerns with the need to prevent catastrophic fires. They argue that the bill also includes unprecedented safeguards for old-growth forests by preventing the logging of large, fire-resistant trees in the guise of hazard reduction.

"This is pro-environment legislation and it seeks to reverse some of the damage we have done to our forests and restore their healthy condition," Feinstein said. "The Senate agreement would get projects moving quickly."