New York Times Editorial
May 20, 2003
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

A Flawed Fire Bill

Last August, President Bush seized upon the wildfires then raging throughout the West to offer a fire-prevention plan that alarmed environmentalists even as it delighted the logging industry. The worst features of that plan, and more, have now found their way into a bill that will be offered in the House today by Scott McInnis of Colorado. The bill appears to be aimed as much at opening up remote parts of the national forest to the timber companies as it is at protecting obviously vulnerable communities from fire.

Mr. McInnis, of course, would disagree. But unlike a far more precise bill that will be offered by George Miller, a California Democrat, the McInnis bill does not require the federal government to focus its resources on communities that are clearly at risk. Indeed, it is so loosely drawn as to allow tree-thinning and other "fuel reduction" projects in backcountry areas where fire offers no threat to human safety but where the trees are biggest and the timber companies have the most to gain.

The bill would also weaken longstanding environmental protections, suspending key parts of the National Environmental Policy Act, the nation's bedrock environmental law, and making it more difficult for anyone opposed to Forest Service decisions to seek and win injunctions in the courts. Mr. McInnis and his friends in the administration assert that short-circuiting the review process is necessary because "frivolous" appeals have hamstrung the Forest Service's efforts to prevent fires by thinning and other means. There is no basis for that claim. A recent survey by the General Accounting Office shows that 95 percent of these thinning projects have proceeded in a timely manner, even when challenged.

In other words, Mr. McInnis attempts to fix a problem that does not exist. Mr. Miller, by contrast, directs federal funds to communities at risk, spares backcountry forests from needless logging and safeguards environmental law from erosion. His bill focuses on fire prevention. Mr. McInnis's hijacks the issue to serve other goals. The House should be able to tell the difference.