Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton urged bipartisan support for the president's Healthy Forest Initiative that environmentalists fear will open the door to expanded commercial logging, but which supporters say is necessary to clear out dangerously dry kindling from drought-stricken woods.
"Today marks the next step in meeting the president's call to restore the health of our forests and rangelands and to protect people that live in and around these areas," Veneman said during a hearing of the House Resources Committee. "This legislative proposal would give us management tools we desperately need to help get our forests and communities out of the crises they are in."
Fires to date this year have consumed more than 6.3 million acres, about twice the 10-year average.
A long-running drought has made mountain forests highly vulnerable to fires triggered by lightning, careless campers and other causes.
A woman who became lost and lit a bush on fire to signal to a search helicopter started a portion of the half-million acre Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona. The U.S. Forest Service said Thursday that the investigation into the 16,000-acre Curve fire burning east of Los Angeles had concluded that "candles associated with a ritual involving the use of fire and animal sacrifices started the fire."
Foresters and many lawmakers say that objections to commercial logging on federal lands have prevented the removal of underbrush and small trees that has fueled many of the large fires seen in the West in recent years.
"Active forest management is not just critical for reducing catastrophic wildfires, but is essential for enhancing the health of our nation's forests and promoting habitat diversity," declared Rep. John Peterson, R-Penn., vice-chairman of the committee's forest health subcommittee. "I applaud President Bush for making healthy forests a priority, and I look forward to working to reduce the red tape that prevents professional scientists and land managers from doing their jobs to protect our communities and preserve our environment."
The proposal presented to the committee by Norton and Veneman was divided into four separate parts:
The first piece of the legislation would identify fuel-reduction projects for the next 10 years in critical areas where fire posed the greatest threat to homes and watersheds, and areas where large numbers of trees have been killed by insects. So-called bug kill areas are notoriously dangerous for firefighters, not only because they are often dry and burn easily, but they also can fall over without warning because the root systems have deteriorated.
The second part brings private enterprise into the picture by authorizing the Interior Department and Agriculture Department to enter into long-term "stewardship" contracts in which companies would maintain areas of forest over several years.
"Stewardship contracts retain contractors to provide valuable services, thinning trees and brush and removing dead wood," the two agencies said in a joint statement. "Long-term contracts provide contractors the incentive to invest in equipment and infrastructure needed to productively use material that is incidentally generated from forest thinning to make wood products, such as particle board, or to produce energy."
The third and fourth segments of the proposal deal with the overhauling of the rules governing fuels-reduction projects and an opportunity for environmentalists and other private citizens to challenge individual proposals.
The goal, the agencies said, was to inject "common sense" into rulings on appeals and ensuring that judges hearing appeals have the authority to consider the economic impacts of treatment projects.
Environmentalists this week warned that changes in the procedures would virtually cut the public out of the decision-making process and amass all the power in the hands of government bureaucrats.
"In its very first sentence, this bill would exempt virtually all activities in forests from the National Environmental Policy Act, and by the second page, it has repealed the entire administrative appeals process," said Michael Anderson, senior policy analyst with The Wilderness Society. "Under these rules, the Forest Service could approve logging projects in old-growth forest with absolutely no environmental analysis and no public involvement at all."
Norton reassured the committee that the voters would still have an opportunity to be heard.
"The collaborative process in the 10-year plan will involve citizens upfront in the projects," she explained. "The plan sets forth the blueprint for making communities and the environment safer with active forest management; projects would be selected through consulting all stakeholders at the local level."