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Wildfire legislation garners concern

By Kelly Rayburn

Nov. 11, 2003 9:00 p.m.

As wildfires torched California, advocates of President George
Bush’s “Healthy Forest Initiative” renewed calls
for tree-thinning measures designed to help prevent damaging forest
fires. The House of Representatives and Senate recently passed
bills that would lead to thinning by revising U.S. forest policy to
make it easier for logging on public land. Bush has indicated
support for the bills, whose provisions mirror those in the
president’s initiative. Others remain concerned. UCLA
ecologist Philip Rundel said the bills’ provisions could harm
the environment. Sean Hecht, director of the UCLA Environmental Law
Center, said they significantly reduce the role of public input on
environmental law issues. Furthermore, there are still questions
about whether either version of the bill would do an effective job
at preventing huge fires like those in Southern California in late
October. No one denies those fires’ devastation: They
scorched 750,000 acres of earth, destroyed 3,400 homes, and left 22
dead. Firefighters combatting the flames said it was like fighting
a war. Though external factors like a dry summer and untimely
winds played roles in the destruction, most agree that something
needs to be done.

How forests burn After thousands of years of
evolution, California’s forests are meant to burn. Fire is an
important part of the development of forest ecosystems. Under
natural conditions, fires stay relatively low and cool, burning off
underbrush and shrubbery, but not climbing into the crowns of big
trees. After the brush is cleared away, open ground space provides
opportunities for new trees to grow. For years, such fires swept
through California forests regularly, leaving a “mosaic of
different-aged trees,” as Rundel put it. Once people started
fighting fires, the cycles were disrupted. When fires are prevented
from burning naturally, brush ““ fuel for the fires ““
builds up. Then, when fires do occur, they burn hot and high.
Flames that would crawl along the forest floor burst into tall
trees. They spread through forests left denser than they would
otherwise be if past fires had been left to burn. Whether the
purpose is to prevent crippling fires or to restore natural
ecology, the goal is not to stop fire, but to restore a normal
cycle, Rundel said. One way this can be done is through
preventative or prescribed burnings ““ human-created and
controlled fires. This method has worked well in national parks,
Rundel said. But such burnings are costly and can be potentially
dangerous when performed near residential areas. Manual thinning
““ physical removal of trees and brush ““ seems to be the
only other option. Again, people across the political spectrum and
with different degrees of ecological concern can agree that some
manual thinning is appropriate. But problems arise when the
specific questions are considered. Is it acceptable to thin in old
growth forests? What size trees should be removed? What incentives
should the government give private companies to thin? These
questions were addressed by Bush after he took office.

A “Healthy Forest” Plan In Central
Point, Ore., in August of 2002, Bush unveiled a plan. 2002 was one
of the worst wildfire years in recorded history, and Bush proposed
easing restrictions affecting the management of national forests.
He condemned “endless litigation” and “red
tape,” according to a CNN account of when he unveiled his
policy. Bush’s initiative was roundly opposed by
environmental groups who said it would make it too easy to thin in
environmentally pristine areas. Many viewed the initiative as a
façade ““ a way to provide giveaways to logging interests
in the name of fire protection. But the president has not shied
from traveling to sites of wildfires to push his agenda. In August
2003, he visited a fire-ravaged town in Arizona, calling for the
Senate to pass a bill that included many of the ideas set forth in
the Healthy Forest Initiative. The fires in California also gave
Bush a chance to call for quick implementation of new fire policy.
Now, two separate bills have passed through the two houses of
Congress. If the House and Senate can come to terms and pass one
bill, Bush has indicated he’d sign it. And that leaves many
people worried. Rundel said that while the bills are called fire
prevention packages, they do “a lot more than that.”
The bills do not provide enough protection for environmentally
precious forests, even parts far away from residential areas,
Rundel said. The shift in policy would mean U.S. Forest Service
managers could approve large-scale thinning projects. If projects
are deemed essential for wildfire protection, they would be nearly
immune from judicial and administrative review. This concerns
Hecht, who said the bills would work to limit citizen review and
public input. While acknowledging the necessity to move quickly to
prevent major forest fires, Hecht still said the limitations on
such input does “more harm than good.” He cited a study
released this year by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The study
found that more than 95 percent of the “fuel reduction
projects” reviewed by the GAO were ready to be implemented
within the standard, 90-day litigation period. Also, of the
projects that were challenged in court or administratively, a good
portion were canceled ““ a sign to Hecht that public input and
thorough review of thinning projects is not a bad thing. Both
Rundel and Hecht said the Senate bill is less harmful than the
House bill. The Senate bill, which was proposed by Sen. Dianne
Feinstein, D-Calif., includes some provisions to protect old-growth
areas and restricts the judicial review immunity. “The Senate
bill tones it down a bit,” Hecht said. “It’s
better,” Rundel said of the Senate bill. “It’s
still not acceptable ecologically.”

Stopping fire devastation Especially after
October’s fires, many people feel that preventing major fires
from tearing through communities is more important than protecting
ecosystems and biodiversity. After the Senate bill passed,
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Secretary of the Interior
Gail Norton released a statement commending bipartisan work to
prevent fires. “The legislation is needed to help the land
management agencies decrease the wildland fire risk to
communities,” the statement said. When it seemed partisan
interests would slow a compromise on the Senate and House bills
from reaching the president’s desk, Feinstein, along with
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., released a statement urging better
cooperation to allow “federal land agencies to undertake
badly needed fire reduction activities.” But Rundel and
others have doubts. When asked if the bills do much to prevent
fires, Rundel said, “Yes and no.” The bills do little
to specifically address the forest areas near communities, he said.
Though Bush has widely increased spending on wildland fuel
reduction projects, environmentalists have decried what they see as
a failure to put up enough funds to thin areas that may not be
commercially advantageous for private companies to log. Rundel said
doing so ““ instead of continuing to spend money fighting
fires ““ would be economically smart in the long-run.

With reports from Daily Bruin wire services.

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