Forest Thinning Bill Heads to Senate

Published July 1, 2003

The U.S. House of Representatives voted May 20 to ease bureaucratic obstacles to forest-thinning activities on 20 million acres of the nation’s most fire-prone federal lands.

The bill has the backing of President George W. Bush and, if passed by the Senate, would expedite the often-lengthy administrative and judicial appeals processes that frequently kill forest management programs developed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Under the bill, the time period for plaintiffs to challenge forest-thinning plans would be reduced to 15 days. The bill would require judges to rule on forest-thinning lawsuits within 100 days.

The expedited process is necessary, say the bill’s backers, because currently even a favorable ruling often has little positive effect, as it frequently comes too late to prevent catastrophic fires that occur while forest management plans are being challenged in court. The Forest Service and other supporters of the House legislation have accused environmental activist groups of deliberately abusing the process by filing repetitive suits to delay thinning projects until the damage has already occurred.

The measure passed by a vote of 256-170, with 42 Democrats joining 214 Republicans in support of the measure. Prior to passing the full House, the measure was approved with bipartisan support in several committees, including the Resources, Agriculture, and Judiciary committees.

Senate’s Second Chance

House passage of the measure was expected. A similar bill passed the House last year but died in a conference committee with the Senate. Senate opponents of last year’s bill claimed they shared an interest in preventing the damaging effects of forest fires, but did not want to make it difficult for anti-logging groups such as the Sierra Club to appeal Forest Service thinning projects. Senate opponents also preferred to focus thinning efforts in forests near human population centers. The House bill, by contrast, identifies and addresses forests most at risk of burning, regardless of their proximity to human population centers.

Last year’s wildfire season was the second worst in 50 years. Wildfires torched 7 million acres of forest in 15 states, killing 23 firefighters. The federal government spent $1.6 billion last year on fire-suppression efforts.

This year’s bill would affect only a small share of national forest acreage, serving as a pilot program and case study of the desirability and effectiveness of streamlining forest-management procedures in the most at-risk forests.

“For too many years, bureaucratic tangles and bad forest policy have prevented foresters from keeping our woodlands healthy and safe,” said Bush in support of the House bill. He said forest-thinning restrictions have cost 47,000 timber jobs in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington and have closed 400 mills since 1989.

Fire and the Environment

“It is yet another example of the Bush administration rolling back environmental protections,” claimed Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin). “Now is the time for those who understand how important the environment is for future generations to stand up to the administration.”

Scott McInnis (R-Colorado), who sponsored the bill, countered that true friends of the environment support the fire suppression focus of his measure. “Tragically, America’s forests … are being decimated at an alarming rate by large-scale catastrophic wildfire and massive outbreaks of disease and insect infestation. Each year, millions of acres of once-pristine forest land are ravaged by these pernicious wildland scourges.”

McInnis says overzealous suppression of healthy, small-scale fires during most of the twentieth century has created unnaturally dense forests with an excessive amount of fire-nurturing underbrush. Clearing brush and thinning unnaturally dense forests, says McInnis, will return the land to its natural state. Without such a program, federal forests will continue to experience the recent cycle of wildfires so intense as to sterilize the soil and prevent rejuvenating growth for decades.

“The only thing standing in the way now is bureaucracy and red tape,” said McInnis.

More Bureaucracy?

Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute expressed concern that the House bill, despite its good intentions, would have little real impact on forest fires. The greater effect, O’Toole believes, would be to further expand the federal bureaucracy.

“Historically,” O’Toole observed, “Congress has given the Forest Service a literal blank check to suppress fires. The agency has spent billions of dollars training firefighters, hiring equipment, and putting them in the field ready to fight fires. Yet the number of acres that burn each year have remained proportional to the extent of summer drought. As firefighters sometimes say, in a droughty year the Forest Service fights fires by dumping money on them until it rains–and then the rain puts out the fire.

“At the planned rate of 2.5 million acres a year, it will take decades to treat all of those acres,” noted O’Toole. “Remember, until they are all treated, homes and other structures will still be at risk. Why not just treat the 6.9 million acres of land that are adjacent to those homes, which could be done in less than three years?

“The Healthy Forests Initiative is more accurately titled the Bureaucratic Bloat Initiative, as the only real beneficiaries of the program will be the Forest Service and, to a lesser extent, Department of the Interior bureaucracies. Fiscal conservatives shouldn’t be surprised to learn that giving more money and power to government bureaucracies won’t really solve the fire problem,” O’Toole noted.

Senate Politics

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) liked the idea of using the 20 million acres addressed by the House bill as a real-world testing ground to learn whether expedited thinning processes could quell catastrophic fires. However, Kyl predicted the bill would have a tough time making it through the Senate.

“I’m supposed to be upbeat and optimistic,” Kyl said. “But the reality is that the politics here are so dominant. It’s just a very politically driven proposition, and I don’t know how you break through it and get anything done.”

Kyl pointed out that only one Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, has consistently supported efforts to expedite thinning projects. The remaining Democrats, and several Northeastern Republicans, have deliberately avoided crossing anti-logging activist groups for fear of being branded anti-environment.

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