President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative stalled in the U.S. Senate this fall as political maneuvering by the Democratic leadership assured the proposal would not attract the votes it needed to pass.
On the strength of bipartisan cooperation, majority support for the initiative seemed assured during Senate debate. Then Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) invoked his power to require a 60-vote supermajority for passage of the initiative.
Without enough votes for a supermajority, Healthy Forests supporters spent the final week of September filibustering the Senate’s appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Had the initiative passed the Senate, its funding would have come from the Interior Department.
Special Treatment The Interior bill “remains at an impasse because the Senate Democratic leadership will not work to find a compromise that will allow Western senators to provide their dry states with a way of logging forests in fire-prone areas,” said Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi). “However, Senate Majority Leader Daschle has allowed himself this luxury in his home state.”
Lott was referring to a discovery on July 23 that Daschle had quietly inserted into a spending bill language that exempted forests in his home state from environmental regulations and lawsuits. (See “Daschle double-dealing scorches Healthy Forests opponents,” Environment & Climate News, October 2002.) The South Dakota forestry measure was slipped into a defense spending bill providing supplementary funds to fight terrorism. Daschle’s measure stated that “due to extraordinary circumstances,” allegedly unshared by other parts of the country, significant portions of South Dakota will be exempt from the yoke of controversial environmental laws and regulations championed by Daschle when applied to the rest of the country.
“The President has called on Congress to reduce the red tape forest managers must wade through before thinning forests,” said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. “This is what Congress agreed to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota earlier this summer at the urging of Senator Tom Daschle. It’s what we need to do across the West.”
The President’s initiative is designed to attain long-standing federal forestry goals that have fallen victim to environmental litigation and bureaucratic red tape.
The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan sought to ensure healthy forests while simultaneously assisting the economy by allowing the production of a billion board feet of timber per year. A May 2002 agreement between the federal government and tribal leaders, local officials, and 17 western governors resulted in a 10-Year Fire Plan strategy to promote healthy forests and reduce the threat of severe fires.
Both the Northwest Forest Plan and the 10-Year Fire Plan were designed to promote healthy forests in significant part by thinning tree stands that have become overgrown. Regulatory, bureaucratic, and legal obstacles have prevented effective implementation of these programs.
Environmental Consequences Norton responded to critics of the President’s initiative who argue thinning should be done only in the immediate vicinity of residential dwellings.
“Some environmentalists have criticized the initiative,” explained Norton, “arguing that we should thin trees just in the ‘urban interface’ where residential areas meet the forests. In essence, they say we should address forest ecosystem health only in areas where there is a direct impact on humans.
“Obviously it is important to take steps to reduce fire danger around homes,” she continued. “But we should also recognize the negative effects of overcrowded forests on wildlife and the widespread need for active forest management.”
“The Healthy Forests Initiative will allow foresters to spend more time in the forest and less time in the courtroom battling environmental lawsuits,” added Rep. John Thune (R-South Dakota). “For too long, exhaustive administrative regulations and frivolous environmental lawsuits have stopped sound and balanced forest management. It’s time we cut the red tape, and protect lives and preserve the habitat instead of watching it go up in smoke.”
Supporting Thune’s assertions, Norton observed that “white-crowned sparrows, western bluebirds, rufous hummingbirds, white-headed woodpeckers, Lewis’s woodpeckers, and other forest birds historically common to the West are being pushed out of many forests. Their problem isn’t too few trees, it’s too many trees.”
“These birds need the relatively open forests that greeted Lewis and Clark, but a century of fire suppression has left western forests overgrown, in many places 15 times denser and choked with undergrowth,” continued Norton. “As a result, populations of such birds are much lower in these forests than in other areas where foresters have maintained a natural density of trees and brush through either prescribed burns or thinning.”
“Frequently cutting down small trees and removing undergrowth is beneficial to wildlife and ecosystem health,” Norton added. “Fish and Wildlife Service biologists estimate that 46 species of western forest birds, including 13 species that are of great concern to wildlife biologists, would benefit from better management of our forests.”
With the Healthy Forests Initiative stalled in the Senate, the fate of the proposal will likely be decided in the fall elections. Needing to pick up just a single seat to regain control of the Senate leadership, Republican gains in November would allow a simple majority vote on the President’s initiative after the new Congress is seated. Under such a scenario, the initiative is almost certain to be enacted.
“The continuing threat to both people and wildlife is real,” said Norton. “We must cut the red tape and restore the health of our forests.”
James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.