Streamlining forest “Health” 

Legislation that would cut across federal, state and tribal boundaries and suspend standard management rules in a bid to streamline forest projects was unveiled by Bush administration officials Sept. 5. The new approach is needed, they say, to react to increasing danger from forest fires and bark beetle infestation.

The “Healthy Forests Partnership Act” sent to Congress would allow for the declaration of “healthy forests partnership zones” wherein the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management could grant no-bid, long-term contracts to state and tribal governments to prepare and carry out fuel reduction projects on federal land.

“We’ve made great progress under the Healthy Forests Initiative and have improved the health of millions of acres of forests and rangelands across America. This legislation, however, will allow us to work more effectively with our state and local government partners to fully achieve the desired effects of HFI,” Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said at a Denver press conference on the issue.

Conservation groups who have criticized provisions of the 2003 Healthy Forests Initiative aimed at speeding up projects say this new proposal works more aggressively to reduce public involvement and circumvent existing environmental laws.

Mike Peterson, executive director of the Lands Council, characterizes the act as a “privatization scheme” because it would turn control of wide swaths of national forests over to state entities, which could subcontract the work. The “partnership projects” and “partnership zones” would be exempt from certain provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act, and judicial oversight of these projects would also be restricted, which concerns Peterson and other groups including Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Wilderness Society and the WildWest Institute.

Peterson says he’s been part of recent collaborative work among disparate interests on the Kootenai National Forest and found that it’s not a lack of collaboration or an abundance of red tape that’s holding up projects; it’s a lack of resources in local Forest Service offices that have been repeatedly cut.

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