It's only a bill 

But it could chop down forest protections

Remember that forlorn bill on the Capitol steps in those Schoolhouse Rock educational spots, the one who’s all mopey about being a measly little bill before he gets a chance to shine as a law?

Though they share a common name (“Bill”), chances are that House Bill 1904 (otherwise known as the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003”) wouldn’t know what the hell that little guy was talking about. HB 1904’s life—as short as it has been thus far, with a full House vote not scheduled until next week at the earliest—has been as action-packed as a secret agent’s, and at times just as confusing.

This is the bill that conservatives have rumbled about with increasing volume over the past several years, which have seen a preponderance of major forest fires. This is the bill championed by President Bush in his State of the Union speech, months before it ever went to committee, when it was just a sparkle in Colorado Rep. Scott McInness’ eye. This is the bill that has already developed an acrimonious relationship with environmentalists, as the recent letter of opposition signed by 103 conservation groups indicates. This is the bill that, depending on the source of your green-tinted glasses, is either a brilliant solution to solving our forests’ fire problem while boosting local economies, or a shameful gutting of our judicial process in the name of wide-open logging on our national forests.

The bones of this bill, as it stands right now, are as follows. Claiming that 190 million acres of federal land are at risk of “catastrophic fire in the near future” and another 70 million acres at risk of “higher than normal mortality rate from insect infestation and disease,” the bill would target up to 20 million acres for “authorized hazardous fuels reduction” projects, and another 250,000 acres—in 1,000-acre parcels—of “applied silvicultural assessment” projects on federal land. Both hazardous fuels reduction and applied silvicultural assessment projects include timber harvest, thinning, prescribed burning and pruning, the scope of which is to be decided by either the Interior or Agriculture Secretary.

The bill contains other components, such as biomass fuel grants, watershed protection measures and establishing a “Healthy Forest Reserve” on land in the hands of private owners. But the highest points on the lightning rod, at least as far as environmentalists are concerned, are the risk-reduction projects.

The main source of angst among conservationists is the expedited approval processes for those projects spelled out in the bill. For hazardous fuels reduction projects, the bill would significantly alter the approval process established by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, one of the holy grails of the environmental movement. Tight time limits would be imposed on legal challenges to proposed projects and to the temporary injunctions to projects often granted by courts that allow further examination. And HB 1904 would waive the NEPA-established requirement that alternatives to agency actions be considered for every proposed project.

Furthermore, the bill would allow the construction of “temporary” roads in officially-designated “Roadless Areas” to facilitate those projects, again striking at the core of what environmentalists hold as holy ground.

Perhaps the strangest element of the bill, though, is a short section that directs the courts to “give deference to any agency finding…that the balance of harm and the public interest in avoiding the short-term effects of agency action is outweighed by the public interest in avoiding long-term harm to the ecosystem.”

This apparent directive instructing the courts to favor logging projects whenever possible is a particularly sticky aspect of the bill for Mike Petersen, of the Spokane-based conservation group The Lands Council. “We’re already dealing with a system that is skewed in favor of Forest Service projects,” he says, “and this bill puts that deference on record. The balance of power between Congress and the judiciary is shifting way too far in favor of Congress.”

But HB 1904’s tweaking of the judiciary process may not yet be finalized. After passing through both the Resources and Agriculture Committees, the bill was scheduled for a full House vote this week. As of press time, though, the Judiciary Committee had stepped in for a closer look, with a full House vote rescheduled for next week.

And as if the swirling maelstrom of controversy surrounding it wasn’t enough, HB 1904 was used last week as a platform for Rep. Denny Rehberg.

Rehberg first claimed to have an amendment to the bill ready that would have directed the Forest Service to offer so-called “stewardship” contracts—agreements between the Forest Service and any non-federal entity that rewards restoration work on federal land with timber from logging projects. These contracts would go directly to Native American tribes for work on federal lands adjacent to Indian reservations.

Rehberg said that the tribes enjoy an “expedited process” for logging projects on their own land, a process they should be able to transfer to work on federal land. But Indian tribes are bound by the same NEPA process that conventional Forest Service projects are currently bound by, so where that “expedited process” would come into play is a mystery.

Rehberg then announced he was dropping his amendment to the bill, having secured a written commitment from Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey that would initiate proposals under which, according to a Rehberg press release, “non-federal entities may compete for contracts to carry out end results projects on national forest system lands.”

But those stewardship contracts trumpeted by Rehberg have been in place for several years.

“We don’t really understand that either,” says Sharon Sweeney, public affairs officer for the Lolo National Forest, of the confusing nature of Rehberg’s statements. “Indian tribes, as a non-federal entity, have been eligible for stewardship contracts from the beginning.”

Stay tuned, for the strange turns in the life of HB 1904 are far from over.

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