Congress Passes Healthy Forests Measure

Published January 1, 2004

After more than a year of debate, the U.S. House and U.S. Senate on November 21 approved a law to expedite the management of 20 million acres of federal land at serious risk of catastrophic forest fire. The bipartisan compromise passed by a 286-140 vote in the House and was approved by voice vote in the Senate.

President George W. Bush signed the measure on December 3. “We have a responsibility to be good stewards of our forests,” Bush said. “The legislation I sign today carries forward this ethic of stewardship. With the Healthy Forest Restoration Act we will help to prevent catastrophic wildfires, we’ll help save lives and property, and we’ll help protect our forests from sudden and needless destruction.”

Quicker Action Possible

Under the new law, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will operate under streamlined procedures allowing them to more quickly thin overgrown forests and otherwise manage federal lands prone to catastrophic fires like those that ravaged Southern California in the summer of 2003.

To reduce lengthy administrative delays that often lasted for years under current law, the new bill will allow administrative appeals only by persons and groups who filed written comments during the planning stages of forest management projects. Federal judges are precluded under the bill from issuing preliminary injunctions for more than 60 days on such projects. Also, the bill requires that at least 50 percent of Healthy Forests Restoration Act funding be directed to forest areas near residential communities.

“Nobody denies that our forests are overcrowded,” wrote David Bischel of the California Forestry Association in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Fire suppression and restrictions on forest management have created forests that are 20 times denser than normal, more in some places. Everyone agrees that this overcrowding makes our forests more susceptible to wildfire, disease, and insect infestation. In Southern California, we’re seeing that leaving forests alone equates to watching them burn.”

Under the old system, “it takes forest rangers on average several years to maneuver a thinning project through this nightmarish bureaucratic process, even where certain catastrophe awaits,” explained House Forest Subcommittee Chairman Scott McInnis (R-Colorado). Under the new law, forest rangers will have “a very effective weapon to let them go back and do what they know best–that’s managing the forests,” he added.

“We kept all the essential provisions of the Senate bill, and the changes we made were largely clarifications of the Senate’s intent rather than substantive changes,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who supported the bill.

“There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and toil in this bill,” said McInnis. “After weeks of effort to find our common ground, the finish line for healthy and more fire resistant forests is now in sight.”

Price Tag Causes Concern

To pay for the accelerated forest management programs, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act authorizes funding of $760 million per year. That price tag caused some advocates of limited government to side with liberal environmental groups like the Sierra Club that oppose the new law.

“Budgets for treating hazardous fuels have grown from about $20 million a year in the early 1990s to $400 million a year today,” observed Randal O’Toole, a senior economist with the Thoreau Institute. “The problem is not a shortage of funds, but too much money. Congress has given the Forest Service a blank check to put out fires and is now giving it a near-blank check to thin forests. When you have a blank check to do something, it becomes the only thing you want to do even if something else works better at a far lower cost.” According to O’Toole, a less expensive and more effective way to safeguard the public would be to fireproof homes with non-flammable roofs and landscaping.

Congress, however, determined that the risk of more wildfires like the ones that blanketed Southern California last year was too great to fail to enact a new forest management plan.

President George W. Bush welcomed news that Congress had passed the bill. Upon returning from a trip to London, he said the Healthy Forests Restoration Act “will help us maintain our national treasure, our forests.” He added the new law will provide a common-sense strategy to make sure “that the fire hazards that we’ve seen over the last couple of summers are mitigated as best as possible.”

“At last the federal forest management policy of ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ may be about to end,” said Robert J. Smith, senior environmental scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“Tragically, it took the most catastrophic fires in California’s history to force the Senate to act,” said Smith. “With 20 deaths, 2,600 homes destroyed, and 750,000 acres of forest and chaparral incinerated in one week, the bill’s opponents in the Senate could no longer hide behind their fears that a timber company might be allowed to earn a profit cutting a few large marketable trees in order to pay for the massive thinning and cleanup of the forests.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].