Bush Pushes Healthy Forests after Congressional Inaction

Published February 1, 2003

With Congress failing to act on his Healthy Forests Initiative, President George W. Bush on December 11 announced a proposal to streamline fire-prevention initiatives in the nation’s forests. The proposal includes pilot projects in 10 test areas to determine the efficiency and effectiveness of forest thinning to reduce fuel loads in at-risk forests.

Bush was able to advance the proposal without the approval of Congress under an exemption for administrative regulations that do not significantly impact human environments. The proposal was subject to a 30-day public comment period before taking effect.

The 10 forests were selected for their high susceptibility to fire and their proximity to human population centers. The selected areas are:

  • Eldorado National Forest, in northeastern California
  • Mendocito National Forest, in northern California
  • Forests near Pocatello, Idaho
  • Huron-Manistee National Forests, in northeastern Michigan
  • Forests near Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Forests near Medford, Oregon
  • Sam Houston National Forest, in southeastern Texas
  • Dixie National Forest, in southwestern Utah
  • Forests near a Bureau of Land Management office in southwestern Utah
  • Forests near the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery in northern Washington.

The selected areas will undergo an initial environmental analysis but will not be subject to the type of comprehensive environmental impact statement recently required for similar forest-thinning projects. The environmental analysis will be accompanied by a review of the economic consequences that would have occurred had the forest not been part of the pilot project.

A primary objective of the project is to limit the lengthy and frequently redundant environmental appeals process. Currently, proposals to thin overgrown forests can be stalled for years by appeals and lawsuits filed by anti-logging activist groups, even when the appeals and lawsuits have no merit.

“We have a situation now which our chief of the Forest Service likes to call ‘analysis paralysis,’ where you make a decision, and it continues to get appealed in the courts,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. “We then never get anything done.”

“Dense overgrown forests and rangelands have grown like cancer,” said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. “They need to be treated.”

Prior Management Proposals

The President’s latest proposal comes after his Healthy Forests Initiative made little political headway on Capitol Hill. That initiative, proposed in August 2002, intended to remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles that hinder active forest management. According to U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, bureaucratic processes frequently choke off efficient and effective forest management.

The Healthy Forests Initiative also called on Congress to reform laws that allow activist groups to prevent timely forest management by launching a seemingly unending stream of administrative challenges and federal lawsuits. The General Accounting Office reports environmental appeals delayed 48 percent of the Forest Service’s fire prevention projects in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.

“We have a problem with the regulatory body there in Washington,” said Bush in announcing the Healthy Forests Initiative from the top of Oregon’s Squires Peak. “There are so many regulations, and so much red tape. … [T]here are just too many lawsuits, just endless litigation.

“We want to make sure our citizens have the right to the courthouse,” added Bush. “But there’s a fine balance between people expressing themselves and their opinions and using litigation to keep the United States of America from enacting common-sense forest policy.”

Bush’s Initiative died when then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) blocked it in the U.S. Senate. Supporters were particularly outraged by Daschle’s intransigence because he had brokered a very similar initiative that applied solely to lands in his home state.

More Regional Autonomy

Following Congressional inaction on the Healthy Forests Initiative, Bush on November 27 proposed granting regional foresters more discretion in conducting case-by-case environmental analyses of the needs of their forests. Rather than subjecting all potential forestry decisions to a central bureaucracy with one-size-fits-all regulations, Bush proposed granting regional foresters the authority to determine what level of analysis would be most appropriate for project proposals in their forests. At the time this story went to press, that proposal was undergoing public comment and was expected to be implemented in early 2003.

“With this proposal, the agency seeks to produce a planning rule that sets the stage for planning to be done in a reasonable manner, at reasonable costs, in a reasonable amount of time,” the November proposal stated.

The proposal’s monetary savings “can be used to address critical areas, such as wildfire prevention, watershed protection, and recreation facility maintenance,” said U.S. Forest Service Associate Chief Sandy Collins.

Wake-up Call

The President’s December 11 proposal is designed to prevent a repeat of the catastrophic forest fires that have plagued the American West in recent summers. Last year alone, wildfires burned more than 7 million acres of land and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and buildings.

“This summer’s fire season was a wake-up call to everyone who loves our public lands and wants to protect communities at risk,” said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We face a crisis of forest and rangeland health of unprecedented proportions, where millions of acres of land desperately need more effective management to promote ecosystem restoration.”

“These common-sense steps will allow federal agencies to spend millions of dollars a year on environmental restoration and conservation rather than needless paperwork,” Connaughton added. “The result will be safer communities, safer firefighters, and healthier forest ecosystems.”

“We have two choices,” agreed James Hansen (R-Utah), chairman of the House Resources Committee. “Act swiftly this winter, or do little and next summer spend another $1 billion fighting ferocious wildfires that eat up another 7 million acres of forests and habitat, destroying homes and killing wildlife. We choose to act.”

Learning from Experience

Bush’s proposals draw heavily from lessons recently, and painfully, learned. In 1996 federal officials identified the Squires Peak area as a high-risk fire region and began planning to thin crowded trees and dense underbrush on 24,000 acres. But six years of analysis, documentation, administrative appeals, and lawsuits delayed and reduced the scope of the project to only 430 acres.

When lightning ignited the Squires Peak fire on July 13, 2002, an inferno quickly spread through 2,800 acres of unmanaged forests. In unthinned areas, the fire killed most trees, sterilized soils, and destroyed the habitat of threatened spotted owls. But when the fire reached the 430 acres addressed by the Squires Peak management program, the fire was starved of its fuel and the forest was unharmed. The fire cost $2 million to suppress in the unthinned areas, and $1 million more will be needed to rehabilitate the devastated area.

Squires Peak was not the first time active forest management proved instrumental in saving plant and animal life from raging wildfires.

After an outbreak of wildfires seven years ago blackened much of the Arizona landscape, Flagstaff assistant fire chief Jim Wheeler worked with officials in the Coconino National Forest to thin forests on 100,000 acres of land adjacent to Flagstaff. Last year, the program proved remarkably effective in desperate conditions.

In June 2002, at the same time and in the same vicinity that a Fort Apache, Arizona fire blazed out of control, a wildfire broke out near Flagstaff. However, unlike the Fort Apache fire, after the Flagstaff fire raced toward a subdivision of homes, it died out in a grove of ponderosa pines Wheeler had thinned.

“The point is this,” said Wheeler. “Either we start thinning the forests ourselves or we are going to lose them to a catastrophic fire.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.