Union Tribune

November 21, 2003

Compromise reached on plan to thin forests


WASHINGTON Congressional negotiators have agreed on a plan they said will help prevent Western wildfires by making it easier to remove brittle and dying trees from 20 million acres of federal forest land.

The plan, which the House and Senate could vote on as early as today, is opposed by environmentalists who contended it would let timber companies cut down large trees deep in the forest, but do little to clear fire-prone areas close to homes.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who helped broker a deal on the plan, said approval of the legislation "would be a major step . . . toward ensuring that tragedies like the wildfires in my state last month do not strike other communities again and again and again.

"We must do everything we can to avert such a catastrophe in the future," she said.

The Sierra Club criticized the plan as a way for the Bush administration to cater to timber companies under the guise of preventing fires.

"There is a better way, but it requires putting the safety of communities ahead of the interests of timber companies," said Carl Pope, the club's executive director.

After fires raged through San Diego County and elsewhere in Southern California killing 23 people, consuming 738,158 acres and destroying more than 3,600 homes momentum built for a forest-thinning plan that had long divided Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Yesterday, House and Senate lawmakers reached a compromise on two bills, after negotiations had stalled more than a week ago amid procedural disputes between Republicans and Democrats. Meanwhile, environmentalists increased pressure to change the legislation.

The deal, which closely mirrors a "Healthy Forests Initiative" that Bush unveiled last year, would step up efforts to thin forests by providing $740 million a year for the job, while limiting environmental reviews and court appeals. The plan would affect 20 million acres of federal forests in the West, 8 million of them in California.

The compromise would direct at least half the money toward thinning forest areas near where people live, and would attempt to spare larger, older trees from logging. If a thinning project is challenged and stopped in court, the bill would limit preliminary injunctions to 60 days.

"As we have just seen in California, far too many homes, watersheds and natural resources are being destroyed or damaged as the result of catastrophic fires," wrote Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, in a letter urging Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to reach agreement on the bill.

"We are now poised to put in place management initiatives that could very well help prevent some of these fires in the future."

Environmentalists said the bill would not truly protect older trees, but merely would require timber companies to respect logging plans in federal forests, which the U.S. Forest Service can easily change.

They also said the compromise does not address fire prevention on nonfederal land, which is where most of last month's fires were, and that it focuses far more on timber deep in the forests than on the chaparral, brush and grass that provided much of the fuel for the recent fires.

"Looking at the substance of the bill," Pope said, "the Bush administration's promises to protect communities ring hollow."