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Feinstein Logging Deal compromises California's Forests
Published on Friday, October 31, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Feinstein Logging Deal compromises California's Forests
by Chad Hanson
 

In a move that could ultimately damage forests and worsen the effects of fires in California and the West, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., cut a deal this week in Congress that assures passage of the Bush administration's plan to increase logging in our national forests.

Deceptively named the "Healthy Forests Initiative" by the administration, the legislation would allow increased logging of healthy mature and old-growth trees on federal lands under the guise of fire-risk reduction. Scientists have consistently stated that removing the larger, more fire-resistant trees will make matters worse.

Though perhaps well-intended, the Feinstein-Wyden compromise leaves the bulk of the administration's original plan intact. It adds some unenforceable language about protecting old-growth forests, but includes numerous loopholes that allow logging of old-growth trees and roadless areas. Further, the compromise fails to restrict activities to the thinning of undergrowth and very small trees. As usual, large healthy trees will be targeted for removal.

In addition, the Feinstein language does not require the cleanup of flammable "slash debris" -- branches and twigs left behind by logging crews. In other words, the deal doesn't require projects that will actually reduce severe fire incidence, but will likely have the opposite effect.

The compromise package would permanently reduce (and in many cases eliminate) citizen participation and environmental analysis on decisions involving logging of old-growth forests on public lands. What's more, it only requires 50 percent of funds to be spent on reducing combustible underbrush near communities, and it defines the notion of "urban areas" so broadly that projects could be located virtually anywhere, including the backcountry.

Feinstein opposed an amendment by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that sought to require a much larger percentage of the funds to be spent reducing flammable brush near homes. As a result, money that would otherwise have been spent protecting property and human safety will now be spent logging mature forests in remote areas. Timber corporations will get rich while homes are left unprotected.

To make matters worse, Feinstein hasn't secured any promises from the administration or House leaders, so the compromise could simply be scrapped in conference committee after Senate passage, resulting in an even worse bill.

For obvious reasons, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., boasted that this legislation is "an important bill" for logging corporations. For equally obvious reasons, environmental organizations, large and small, are united against the legislation.

We can't have it both ways. We can't effectively reduce flammable undergrowth and please the timber industry at the same time. Logging companies have no interest in underbrush. They want valuable mature and old-growth trees.

Yet, scientists have warned us for years that the removal of big trees is one of the main causes of increased fire severity. Such logging reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy, creating hotter, drier conditions on the forest floor. The extra sun exposure increases the growth rate of flammable brush. Where big trees have been removed, dense and highly flammable undergrowth soon develops.

In California, about 90 percent of our old-growth forests have been logged. What remains is mostly on federal public lands. What is it going to take for our elected officials to realize that protecting communities requires clearing undergrowth near homes, not logging old-growth forests and roadless areas? Or that most homes in need of protection are in grasslands and chaparral, not forests? These are questions that Californians may wish to ask their elected officials.

Feinstein claims that she wishes to protect old-growth forests and roadless areas of public lands, while ensuring public safety. That's an admirable goal, but she must first take responsibility for allowing loopholes for logging -- loopholes that may not only destroy those very forests but may also increase the incidence of severe fires.

Chad Hanson is executive director of the John Muir Project , based in Cedar Ridge near the Tahoe National Forest.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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