Sparks Fly at Hearing on Bush Fire
By Cat Lazaroff
Environmental News Service
WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - Fire
experts, environmentalists and politicians faced off today
in House subcommittee hearings over newly introduced legislation
to enact the president's so called "Healthy Forests Initiative."
While nearly all the speakers agreed that some forest
thinning will be needed to reduce the risk of devastating
wildfires in the nation's forests, there was little agreement
on how that thinning should be achieved.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary
Gale Norton delivered several legislative proposals to
Congress on Thursday, two weeks after President George
W. Bush called on these agencies to support a massive
new effort to actively manage forested areas to reduce
fire risk. Under the Bush plan, most forest thinning and
restoration projects performed in the name of fire management
would be exempted from the public and environmental reviews
now required by federal law.
The Bush plan would also authorize long term stewardship
contracts, under which logging companies would perform forest
thinning and restoration projects in exchange for access
to federal timber.
Veneman and Norton delivered the administration's four
part proposal to Congress while testifying before the
House Committee on Resources on fire related topics, including
the President's initiative.
"This legislative proposal would give us management
tools we desperately need to help get our forests and
communities out of the crisis they are in," said Veneman.
Today, the two secretaries testified at a joint hearing
before two House Resources subcommittees - Forests & Forest
Health, and National Parks, Recreation, & Public Lands.
The secretaries noted that this year's record wildfire
season has burned more than six million acres, more than
double the 10 year average, and "based on current fuel
conditions and weather predictions, the potential for
more fires remains high through the fall." The U.S. Forest
Service has spent more than $1.25 billion fighting wildfires
this year, and other federal, state and local agencies
have spent many millions more.
Thousands of people have had to evacuate, hundreds have
lost their homes, and 20 firefighters have lost their
lives in this year's wildfires. These statistics illustrate
the need for the federal government to take a more active
role in managing the nation's forests, the secretaries
According to the secretaries' testimony, active forest
management includes thinning trees from unnaturally dense
stands to produce commercial or pre-commercial products,
removing biomass such as downed trees and shrubs, and
igniting controlled burns.
Bush Administration Offers Four Part Plan
The first piece of the Bush administration's proposal
would aim to reduce forest fuel loads in areas that pose
the greatest risk to people, communities and the environment,
including forests around community water supplies, the
wildland-urban interface, and areas affected by forest
disease and insect infestations.
This proposal would extend a blanket exemption from
all environmental analysis, public comment, and administrative
appeal to fire management projects on millions of acres
of federal forest lands with high fire risk. The proposal
also mandates "expedited" interagency consultations regarding
the impacts these projects might have on endangered species.
The proposal would not apply to designated wilderness areas,
but could apply to eight million acres of inventoried roadless
areas that are now classified as high fire risk. On these
lands, fire management projects would be conducted "notwithstanding
the National Environmental Policy Act" (NEPA), the law that
requires federal agencies to consider the environmental
impacts of their actions.
According to an analysis by the Wilderness Society,
"this NEPA exemption, coupled with repeal of the Appeals
Reform Act in Section 3, means that the Forest Service
could approve logging of old growth forests, road building
in roadless areas, and other projects with absolutely
no environmental analysis, public notice, or opportunity
for public comment."
The next piece of the proposal would authorize the Secretaries
of Agriculture and the Interior to enter into long term
stewardship contracts with the private sector, nonprofit
organizations and local communities. The stewardship contracts
would retain contractors to thin trees and brush, and
removing dead wood, in exchange for the economic value
of the wood they removed. This controversial proposal
has been criticized as providing incentives for contractors
to remove the largest, most valuable trees.
The Bush administration argues that the proposal would
give contractors the incentive to invest in the equipment
and infrastructure needed to use smaller trees and brush
in products such as particle board, or to produce energy
through biomass burning.
The third proposal would repeal the Appeals Reform Act
that was a rider to the fiscal year 1993 Interior Appropriations
Bill, which imposes certain procedural requirements on
the U.S. Forest Service when administrative appeals are
made on forest projects. The proposal would allow appeals
of forest management decisions, but specifies that any
court ruling could "not provide for the issuance of a
temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction,"
and would give courts up to one year to reach a final
The Wilderness Society and other critics argue that this
provision would allow the Forest Service to undertake and
complete a controversial logging or road building project
before a court could issue an injunction, rendering the
court appeal moot.
A fourth administration proposal would establish guidelines
for courts to use when ruling on challenges to fuels reduction
projects such as mechanical thinning or prescribed burns,
requiring courts to "give deference to any agency finding"
that the long term benefits of projects outweigh their
short term risks. The Bush administration says these guidelines
would ensure that judges consider the long term risks
of harm to people, property and the environment when considering
appeals based on the alleged short term risks to species
The departments are also working on a fifth legislative
piece, addressing the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan's original
promise of a sustainable habitat and forest economy, which
will be sent to Congress at a later date. In addition,
the departments are working with the Council for Environmental
Quality to develop draft regulations and policy guidance
to reduce the time and cost of planning and improving
collaboration with local governments on hazardous fuels
Three House Bills Support Bush Plan
The Bush plan is also supported by three new bills introduced
in the House on Thursday by Republican Representatives
Scott McInnis of Colorado, John Shadegg of Arizona and
Denny Rehberg of Montana.
The Healthy Forests Reforms Act of 2002, introduced by McInnis,
would establish an expedited environmental analysis procedure
under NEPA, and restricts the appeals process by mandating
time limits and allowing for negotiated settlements. The
bill also funds fuel reduction programs through fiscal year
2011 at the levels requested by the Western Governors Association.
"Looking backward, this wildfire crisis is unprecedented
in the last several decades. Looking forward, this fiery
carnage is going to continue for decades unless we take
bold and decisive steps," McInnis said. "My bill preserves
the right of citizens to challenge thinning projects administratively
and in the courts, but there will be no more endless stalling.
Thinning projects will no longer be subject to death by
Shadegg's bill, the Wildfire Prevention and Forest Health
Protection Act of 2002, allows thinning to prevent wildfire
where it is "likely to cause extreme harm to the ecological
"This legislation is designed to break the current gridlock
on responsible forest management," Shadegg said, "by allowing
projects involving the removal of trees to proceed if they
are based on sound science and are intended to improve the
health of forest ecosystems. The bill is critical to the
future of our forests."
The National Forest Fire Prevention Act, a bill by Representative
Rehberg, addresses the risk for catastrophic fire and
insect infestation by adopting language written by Senator
Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, for the recently
passed Supplemental Appropriations Act, and extending
that language to all national forests. Daschle's amendment
exempted forest fire management projects in his home state
from most environmental regulations, including the Clean
Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National
Forest Management Act, in addition to NEPA.
"We must have strong, common sense laws to protect the environment,
there's no question about that," Rehberg stated. "Yet those
same laws should not be so burdensome that they prevent
local forest managers from implementing common sense land
"Senator Daschle understands that such regulations can
negatively affect the health of our forests by preventing
active forest management practices from being implemented,"
Rehberg added. "And that's exactly the reason I introduced
this legislation to extend Senator Daschle's South Dakota
exemptions to all national forestland at risk of catastrophic
Action Needed - But What Action?
During today's testimony, all the experts - whether
from conservation groups or the forest industry - agreed
that some action must be taken to reduce wildfire risk.
But while House Republicans and the timber industry called
for widespread forest thinning with few if any restrictions
on the areas that could be mechanically thinned, or the
size of the trees that could be cut, other experts disagreed.
David Callahan, a retired firefighter from the Pacific Northwest,
argued that logging large trees in many cases may make wildfires
burn hotter, and noted that most natural forest fires are
"a good thing" for the environment.
"We need to remove the premise that logging mature trees
is a substitute for thinning," Callahan said. "Thinning
the forest will not prevent wildfires."
Todd Schulke, forest policy director for the Center
for Biological Diversity, noted that arguments for removing
any mature trees - such as logging only diseased trees
- ignore the fact that "diseased trees are a natural part
of a healthy ecosystem."
In fact, diseased trees form the only habitat for some
specialized species of wildlife, which require trees with
holes in them, or with softened wood that can be penetrated
to find insects or build cavity nests, he added.
But Dr. Wally Covington, a forestry professor at Northern
Arizona University, argued that mechanical thinning -
in some cases, even of large trees - is necessary to protect
healthy forest ecosystems. He noted that prescribed burning
does not always remove small trees and brush without killing
mature trees, for example.
"You can not safely remove the trees that need to be
destroyed … with prescribed burning," Covington testified.
Covington also noted that many of the nation's western forests
are now packed with many more trees than they would naturally
carry, if humans had not been restricting natural fires
for the past century or more. While acknowledging that removing
small trees only, and leaving large trees, would prevent
the devastating "crown fires" that consume entire forests
and leave nothing but scorched earth, Covington argued that
achieving that goal is not enough to produce "robust, biologically
"Every tree you leave in excess of natural carrying
capacity of the land," Covington said, "comes at the expense
of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs." The natural spaces around
mature trees in a forest that is regularly swept by small
wildfires, Covington said, provide niches for the wide
variety of plant species needed to support a diversity
Representative Jay Inslee of Washington, the ranking
Democrat on the Forests & Forest Health subcommittee,
concluded that one of the biggest obstacles preventing
wider acceptance of the Bush fire management plan is its
proposal to finance forest management by allowing some
companies to cut trees, through so called stewardship
The administration's proposal asks citizens to trust
that the companies and groups entrusted with such contracts
will make decisions on which trees to cut based on the
needs of the forest, not on economic considerations, Inslee
"This is not a moment where citizens are reacting real
positively to that request," added Inslee, alluding to
previous Bush administration decisions to overturn environmental
laws in favor of economic or commercial interests.
On Thursday, Inslee and colleague Tom Udall, a New Mexico
Democrat, released a report challenging the Bush administration's
argument that lawsuits and appeals by environmental groups
have often blocked forest management projects.
The report, "Comparison of Two Government Reports on
Factors Affecting Timely Fuel Treatment Decisions," details
data errors and sampling bias found in a recent Forest
Service report, and concludes that the agency's report
"This report shows that the attempts by the U.S. Forest
Service to cut large trees located deep within our forests
for commercial profit under the guise of fire prevention
efforts often meet with appeals," Inslee said. "It is regrettable
that the U.S. Forest Service has not focused its efforts
on preventing fires near homes; this error forms the crux
of the problem between the agency and the public."
The Forest Service is not the only federal agency to
be accused of a bias toward tree cutting. In his testimony,
Callahan noted that during his firefighting days, he worked
often with representatives of the Bureau of Land Management
(BLM), the agency responsible for much of the land around
"A lot of people in the BLM want to speak out," about
better management practices, Callahan said. But "the people
that care are overruled most of the time," because of
the agency's long history of cooperating with the timber
industry, he added.
In the end, separate comments by Professor Covington
and the Center for Biological Diversity's Schulke offered
a ray of hope for common ground. Both noted that the environmental
community and forest industry experts agree that small
trees must be thinned to reduce fire risks, and that the
only economic way to thin the nation's millions of forest
acres is to make those small trees more valuable.
The government could make it more cost effective to
harvest trees and brush, both men noted, by supporting
biomass power production - a green, environmentally friendly
For more information on the Bush forest plan, visit:
For Representative Inslee and Udall's report on fire
management statistics, visit: http://www.house.gov/inslee/images/fuel_reduction.pdf