May 21, 2003
House Vote Supports Thinning of Trees on Federal Land

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

ASHINGTON, May 20 — The House voted today to hasten the burning of underbrush and thinning of trees on federal land, supporting what would be one of the most significant changes in forest policy in 100 years.

The measure, supported by President Bush as an effort to reduce catastrophic forest fires, was approved 256 to 170. The bill is to be taken up by the Senate Energy Committee at the end of June and could reach the full Senate later this summer. A somewhat similar measure, under attack by environmental groups, died in the Senate last year, and the outlook for the bill this year is uncertain.

The measure, which originated at the White House as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, was lauded today by President Bush in a Rose Garden ceremony.

"For too many years, bureaucratic tangles and bad forest policy have prevented foresters from keeping our woodlands healthy and safe," he said, noting that last year forest fires killed 23 firefighters, destroyed 815 homes, burned seven million acres of trees and cost taxpayers $1.6 billion to suppress.

But a coalition of environmental groups said the measure "exploited the fear of fire to pass a provision that directly benefits the timber industry while doing almost nothing to help the communities threatened by fire." The groups said the bill would curtail the ability of citizens to go to court to prevent foresters from felling old-growth trees.

Supporters of the measure said the terrible fires of last season, the second worst in 50 years, were partly a result of court actions by environmentalists seeking to prevent these burnings and thinnings that left projects tied up in appeals.

"One reason for these deadly fires is found in decades of well-intentioned, but misguided, forest policy, which has allowed dangerous undergrowth to build up on the forest floor," Mr. Bush said, adding that the brush helped fires climb the trees.

He said that "everybody who's in the field knows what we need to do" — burn the underbrush and thin the trees, an approach that is in fact in some dispute. But acknowledging the hurdles the bill faces in the Senate, Mr. Bush added, "We've just got to make sure that enough senators know what we need to do."

Environmental groups are lobbying the Senate from the other side. Niel Lawrence, director of forestry projects at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the effectiveness of burning and thinning was very much in dispute.

"There are large portions of the West where fire ecologists think things aren't out of whack or if they are, it comes not from fire suppression but from grazing and logging," Mr. Lawrence said.

The legislation, sponsored by Representative Scott McInnis, Republican of Colorado, would let the Forest Service speed its "fuel-reduction projects" — the burning of underbrush and thinning of trees — on 20 million acres of federal woodlands with the most severe fire risks. It would not apply to national parks or national monuments.

In an effort to accelerate the burning and thinning, Mr. McInnis's legislation exempts the projects from certain environmental reviews.

It would also put new restrictions on citizen complaints. It would abolish an administrative appeals process, would require citizens to challenge the projects within 15 days of an agency announcement that it was proceeding and would require judges to issue injunctions in 45 days.

It also says that judges "shall give weight" to findings by federal agencies when considering complaints raised by opponents.

"Let's untie the hands of our forest managers," said Representative Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, one of 42 Democrats who voted for the bill.

But most Democrats objected to these provisions. Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, said the legislation appeared to be the only instance in which the administration had sought a time limit on judicial action.

Taking issue with Republican claims of delay, Democrats also cited a recent report by the General Accounting Office that found that 95 percent of the projects proceeded in a timely manner.

Representative Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican known as an environmentalist, backed the bill. He acknowledged that it would expedite judicial procedures but said that it would do so with safeguards.

"It doesn't change the basic test courts use when deciding whether to issue an injunction," he said.

While the proposal said courts should give weight to federal agencies, he said, "the court has no obligation to defer to the agency."

"The agency cannot, and I emphasize cannot, do what it pleases when it pleases," Mr. Boehlert said.

Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, an opponent of the bill, shouted on the House floor that it would encourage the cutting of valuable old-growth trees and leave the decisions on whether to protect such trees to political appointees.

"This bill cannot become law as it is now," Mr. DeFazio said, arguing that it was "either a bargaining chip" to bring the Senate to the table, "or it's a political event so that you can blame a couple prominent Democratic Western senators who are up for election for stopping the bill over there and use it against them as an election-year issue."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company