On Wednesday, President Bush signed the ill-named "Healthy Forests Restoration Act," authorizing sweeping changes in the management of our National Forests. The House had rubber-stamped legislation supported by industry and the administration, and the Senate later passed a "compromise" version of the same bill. In the wake of the California fires, 90 percent of which burned in chaparral and shrubland, supporters of the legislation cynically wasted no time in moving their project forward.
While presented as a "fuels reduction" bill, ostensibly to protect homes and communities at risk from wildfire, the legislation does little of that. Instead, the Bush administration exploited the public's justified fear of fires to pass a bill that effectively cuts the public out of the process, interferes with an independent judiciary, and encourages the logging of trees far removed from areas at risk.
The truth is, even if the legislation had already been law, it would have done little to remedy the situation in Southern California. The problem is one of money and where it gets spent. Most of the fire-fighting funds available to California are spent in the timber-rich areas of the north, while the communities threatened in the south have received little. The commonsense solution is to devote funds to thinning brush and small trees around threatened homes and communities.
Most important, the act is a failure as a fire-protection bill. It basically retains the status quo, requiring just 50 percent of funding to be spent on federal lands near a community, which is no increase from what the agencies are claiming to do now. In addition, more than 85 percent of the lands near threatened communities are on state, tribal and private lands, meaning that residents near these non-federal lands will still be unprotected and homes and lives will still be threatened.
Additionally, the loophole language in the deal could be used to expand logging on federal lands regardless of their proximity to communities. The act expands the definition of at-risk areas to include an indeterminate "area adjacent to" an at-risk community. These projects could also be administered on up to 20 million acres of any federal land on which windthrow or blowdown, ice storm damage, or the existence of disease or insect infestation pose a "significant threat" to other lands. The resulting loophole allows logging projects in roadless areas, ancient forests, and other areas where commercial timber sales would be most lucrative, regardless of the need for fuel reduction elsewhere.
Further, the act curtails public participation in fuels-reduction projects on National Forest lands. The act alters the review process and severely limits the alternatives that may be considered in an environmental review. The secretary of agriculture must establish a special, pre-decisional, and undefined administrative review process for Forest Service lands. These measures are touted as reducing a mythical "analysis paralysis," but a recent GAO report has shown that environmental analysis or appeals have had little or no impact on fuels projects.
Finally, despite claims that this act provides protection for old-growth forests, its provisions offer only guidelines for logging projects in rare old-growth forests. Roadless areas are also left vulnerable to logging. No safeguards for roadless areas in the act. No prohibitions on road construction or reconstruction in wild roadless forests.
The American people have stated repeatedly that these public lands are a treasure and a legacy for future generations, not to be sold off to the highest bidder or used for political and commercial gain. We should focus instead on true protection for our public lands, real protection for communities at risk, and unequivocal protection for the rights of citizens to participate fully in the management of our National Forests, from the Appalachians to Alaska. In the Bush administration's dismal record on forest policies, this act marks a new low point.
David Muhly is the Sierra Club's regional representative for the Appalachian region.
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