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The realities of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act

Dear Editors:

With the West at immediate risk of catastrophic wildfires, Congressman Scott McInnis has sent to the Senate the "Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003" (H.R.1904) which the Senate should not pass. This act is an omnibus, forest-management bill that purports to expedite hazardous-fuels reduction projects to protect our communities and watersheds from catastrophic wildfire. Unfortunately, it does far more than seek to protect our communities from fire.

While passage of this bill will facilitate some fuel-reduction projects in "the red zone" the wildland-urban interface where extreme drought and fire suppression have created fire dangers of monstrous proportions it also will permit the secretaries of agriculture and the interior to authorize logging projects, with a few exceptions, wherever they wish on millions acres of federal land simply by declaring that their action is an "authorized hazardous fuels reduction project."

Title I of H.R.1904 states that forest land at risk of moderate fire danger, if it is located in "proximity" to "a stream feeding a municipal water-supply system" qualifies as do most other parts of national forests for an "authorized hazardous-fuels reduction project." Title II cites millions of acres of federal land as "at risk of catastrophic fire in the near future," thus opening most federal land in the West for "authorized hazardous-fuels reduction projects." Such broad, inclusive language will permit large-scale logging far from the red zone in inappropriate, old-growth forests where timber companies currently can't go with their chain saws.

Another section of H.R.1904 finds that 70 million acres of land are "at risk to higher than normal mortality over the next 15 years from insect infestation and disease." The bill authorizes the secretary concerned to conduct up to 250, 1,000-acre "applied silvicultural assessments on federal lands ... at risk of infestation by, or that are infested with, bark beetles."

H.R.1904 defines "applied silvicultural assessments" to include timber harvests, and since large numbers of bark beetles inhabit every forest, the concerned secretary is empowered to authorize 1,000-acre clear cuts without consideration of environmental impacts. H.R.1904 categorically excludes these "applied silvicultural assessments" from analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). "The Secretary concerned need not make any findings as to whether the project, either individually or cumulatively, has a significant effect on the environment."

The American public and our federal lands deserve better laws than this. We are facing a crisis in forest fire management, and Congressman McInnis creates Trojan Horse legislation that invites misuse of limited Forest Service and BLM funds. Like other Trojan Horses, H.R.1904 has an attractive exterior with meritorious goals. It offers $60 million to state forest stewardship capacities and $100 million to jump-start a forest biomass industry. One sentence in this 49-page document directs the secretary concerned to give priority to projects that protect communities and watersheds. This sentence is followed by six pages devoted to lessening environmental safeguards.

H.R.1904 gives the secretary concerned discretionary authority to eliminate alternatives in environmental assessments and impact statements. Normal administrative review is scrapped in favor of a blank check to develop a process "that will serve as the sole means" for administrative redress. Local governments, private citizens, nonagency fire ecologists and forest scientists who did not submit "specific and substantive comments during the preparation stage" of a project are prohibited from participation in the yet-to-be-created review process.

H.R.1904 obviates the Appeals Reform Act of 1993, and in a questionable attempt by the Legislature to regulate the judicial branch of the government, H.R.1904 restricts federal courts in their handling of appeals. Court appeals must be filed within 15 days. Judges may not grant waivers of requirements, and preliminary injunctions are limited to 45 days. Furthermore, cases must be heard in 100 days, and judges must "give deference to any agency finding" regarding the balance of harm to the ecosystem and to public interest.

Too much of this legislation will hamstring the NEPA process that provides limited but essential restraint to poorly conceived federal land-management decisions.

Throughout the West, there are ravaged landscapes where government-subsidized road construction and overcutting of national forests provided local jobs and timber for a robust American economy. Congressional delegations directed the Forest Service to get the cut out, and entire watersheds like those in the Shelton Ranger District in the Olympic National forest were sacrificed for commercial goals. H.R.1904 opens the door to abusive logging practices while not directing sufficient attention to the red zone.

If the Senate passes H.R.1904, "authorized fuels-reduction projects" are likely to be used to justify ill-conceived logging projects, and NEPA safeguards will be rendered ineffective. Only the Senate now has the power to protect America's national forests from predatory commercial interests. The Senate should reject this bill.

Charles Kerr,

via e-mail





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