Bush’s Bill Misses the Forest for the Trees

Using public lands in California and Oregon as a backdrop this August, President George W. Bush toured the West, stumping for his “Healthy Forests” initiative. “The worst thing that can happen to these old stands of timber are these fires,” Bush told an audience in Redmond, Oregon. But forest activists say the Healthy Forests initiative and the legislation at its center, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, pose a far more serious threat to California forests than does fire.
“It would essentially give them the green light to go ahead and log anywhere in the name of fuels reduction and forest health,” says Christine Ambrose, a longtime Northern California forest activist working for American Lands, who fears the bill would significantly change the way California’s 20 million acres of National Forest are managed.
In May, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act sped through the House and may, in a slightly revised form, come up for a vote in late October. Bush says the initiative will expedite the thinning of forests, which he contends is stymied by foot-dragging litigation that endangers forest health and the safety of nearby communities.
But Northern California environmentalists say the initiative will limit their input in Forest Service-proposed projects like the Knob Timber sale. Located in a portion of the Klamath National Forest adjacent to the Marble Mountain Wilderness, the Knob Timber sale would open parts of the wild and scenic Salmon River’s watershed to logging. Coho and spring chinook salmon, summer steelhead, Pacific fisher, northern spotted owl, and northern goshawk call the area home.
Environmental Protection Information Center, the Klamath Forest Alliance, and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center are challenging the sale. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act would restrict the process through which individuals and organizations participate in Forest Service decisions. It would also eliminate parts of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) so that the Forest Service and other government agencies would not have to consider alternatives for logging and road building, and it would put courts under strict deadlines when reviewing Forest Service projects.
“All it does is put out $400 million dollars for logging,” says the Wilderness Society’s Michael Francis. “It pretty much guts the NEPA process, and then it tells citizens that you really don’t have a right to vote or comment on these things, and if we go to court we’re going to put our thumbs on the scales of justice so you can never win.” The Knob Timber project is now on hold because environmentalists have sued. But Ambrose says sales in the same watershed are in the works, and without adequate recourse through the courts, environmentalists might not be able to stop them.
Francis and Ambrose doubt the plan will mandate the kind of thinning that might prevent catastrophic fires. They say the bill’s method of using private logging companies to carry out fuels reduction projects—and paying them with what is cleared—ensures that the plan won’t work. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act does not specify the removal of small trees and brush, nor does it exclude large-diameter trees from thinning projects.
Ambrose points to a photo of trees marked for cutting in the Knob Timber sale. “What the Forest Service should be targeting are those small trees in the back of the photo,” says Ambrose. “Instead what they’re doing is going in and targeting these last big ancient trees and saying that they need to get rid of them for fire risk.”
American Lands is encouraging support of an alternate bill, the Forestry Community Assistance Act (S. 1453), introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy and Barbara Boxer. The alternative focuses fuels reduction efforts in defensive zones around communities, leaves NEPA intact, and maintains the independence of the judiciary system. “There is an alternative,” says Ambrose. “We don’t have to let the Bush administration try and trick everyone with this fear of wildfire.”

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