The rhetoric behind President Bush’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act is as hot as the fires that burned nearly three million acres nationwide this summer. To hear it from the bill’s supporters and critics, the Act is either the fastest way to clear the forest of home-threatening “fuel,” or is another Orwellian proposal from the anti-environmental Bush administration.
The Healthy Forest Restoration Act passed the House—Rep. Dennis Rehberg voting in favor—and heads to the Senate this month.
What the bill would do is allow federal land managers to conduct “fuels reduction” projects, that is, thinning or burning excess trees and brush, without developing or offering any alternatives—what a federal court has called the very heart of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The bill also directs federal judges to speed up litigation by capping injunctions at 45 days, renewable for another 45 days at the end of each injunction period, and by requiring a judgment in no more than 100 days. Federal courts would also be directed to defer to government scientists in each litigated case.
In some ways, the bill appears to be directed more at how federal courts deal with public lands issues than with the actual health of the nation’s forests or the protection of homes and communities, which is how the Bush Administration is selling the legislation to the public. And that’s one of the criticisms the Native Forest Network and its director Matthew Koehler has leveled at the legislation.
“This legislation has blurred two issues,” says Koehler, “protecting homes and restoring the national forest.” Protecting homes, which the Bush administration stresses this bill will do, is not the same as restoring the health of the poorly managed national forests. “This bill doesn’t address forest health problems at all.”
Chief among the problems that plague American forests, he says, are the 440,000 miles of roads on public lands. Criss-crossing the forest are miles of old, abandoned logging roads stacked atop one another, sometimes 10-deep across the face of a mountain, as if scratched there by giant fingers. Roads cause erosion, fragment wildlife habitat and become weed corridors into the backcountry. Culverts pose barriers to spawning fish. The Forest Service estimates that its degraded road system is in need of $8 billion in repairs. Removing half the roads, recontouring the land, eradicating weeds and investing in stream restoration would constitute a real Healthy Forest Restoration bill, says Koehler, but the pending legislation doesn’t address those issues.
Nor does the bill make any money available to meet its stated objective: protecting homes and communities from wildfire. Federal grants to cities, counties and neighborhood councils would go a long way toward educating people on how best to protect their homes, Koehler maintains, particularly since the Forest Service has already developed such information.
J.P. Donovan, press secretary to Sen. Conrad Burns, counters that the bill is simply an authorization bill, not an appropriations bill. Though the legislation details expenditures of some $420 million over a four-year period, Donovan says that’s just a fiscal wish list. If the bill becomes law, Congress would then have to approve those expenditures.
Still, none of that $420 million, wish list though it might be, is earmarked specifically for home or community wildfire protection. Rather, the money would be spent on research and restoration projects on national, state and private forest lands.
Koehler argues that the Healthy Forest Restoration Act is an Orwellian misnomer and would do the opposite of what it implies, much as Bush’s Clear Skies initiative allows more, rather than less, industrial air pollution. He cites federal government statistics that show the majority of fuels reduction projects proposed in 2001 and 2002 were not litigated. But Donovan says those numbers are misleading. His stats show that in this neck of the woods, Forest Service Region 1, 38 of 40 fuels reduction were appealed, if not litigated, suggesting that the oft-mentioned complaint of “analysis paralysis” does have merit. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act will allow land managers to take action when action needs to be taken, he says. “If that stuff (brush and trees) has to be taken out of there, it has to be taken out of there. It’s time sensitive.”
In a Sept. 8, 2003 letter to his Senate colleagues, Burns assails “Montana-based militant protesters and other career obstructionists” for leading federal land managers away from their duty of protecting homes and communities from the threat of wildfire. Burns notes that already more than 20 wildland firefighters have died this year. It’s a toll the country can no longer afford to pay, he says.
The Bush administration, through the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, says Koehler, is simply exploiting public fear of wildfire. “The Bush administration has sold the public on the idea that all wildfire is bad. They really realize the power of fear.” Nowhere does the bill acknowledge the role drought plays in wildfire.
Fear and drought make for a powerful combination, however. Together they’ve changed the way the Forest Service does business. “Fire suppression has become big business, and fire suppression is changing the Forest Service budget to a significant degree,” says Koehler.
“So much of this comes down to trust. Do you trust the Bush administration to protect the environment? I think that’s the bottom line.”