by Cara Gardner

Smokey Bear, America's most responsible camper, has some competition. Now there's a new simplified message about preventing forest fires; it comes from President Bush.

On Dec. 3, Bush signed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. Supporters declare the legislation will safeguard communities from the devastating effects of wildfires, but critics claim it will increase commercial logging in our nation's national forests. Most likely, it will do both.

"This is the first [forest restoration] bill to pass in 25 years," says Stefany Bales of the Intermountain Forest Association (IFA), a Coeur d'Alene-based public and government affairs organization that represents logging companies, wood product manufacturers and timberland owners. "It took the fires [in California] to get people's attention that these fires aren't just happening in the back country. They are right up at people's doors."

Bales says the bill is a bipartisan commitment from the federal government to take part in preventing wildfires.

But Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, a conservation organization in the Inland Northwest, says supporters of the bill have turned the recent California fires into a PR campaign for logging.

"The irony is that most of [the California land] was not nationally forested," says Petersen. "The thing people don't recognize, and it's crucial to our area, is that this bill only deals with national forests. Fifty-eight percent of Washington's forests are privately owned. When you look at where fires happen and homes burn down, it's not national forests. This bill is not about protecting communities as much as it is getting on our public lands to start logging again."

The Lands Council isn't the only group speaking out. Environmentalists nationwide say the only thing green about the Healthy Forest Restoration Act is the light signaling the logging industry to go forward with commercial projects.

"This is not a commercial logging bill," argues Bales. "It's a fuel reduction bill. It has nothing to do with making money or making products."

Fuel reduction consists of logging smaller trees, underbrush and other forest biomass that catch and carry fire rapidly. The Restoration Act calls for $760 million a year (which hasn't yet been appropriated) to be spent on fuel reduction on public lands. Fifty percent of that money must be spent near communities at risk from fire. Opponents of the bill say if it was truly about preventing homes from burning, 80-90 percent of the funds would be spent in those areas.

"There are a lot better ways the bill should have done things," Petersen says. "It should have entirely focused on communities and provided more assistance, both technical and financial, for private lands. It didn't provide anything for private land. And it didn't put a limit on how much could be cut for re-growth fuel. There's no protection in roadless areas. The Bush administration believes [timber companies] can go in and do regular logging in roadless areas."

Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist and director of the World Wildlife Fund for the Klamath-Siskiyou Oregon region, says there's nothing healthy about the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

"There is a whole variety of information used to justify saying we need more logging to fight fires," DellaSala says. "It is misguided and [based on] poor science. Some forms of logging, like thinning small trees, are good for forest restoration principles, but by and large the century of logging we've had has contributed to the elevated risk of fire."

Bales, with the IFA, says the bill simply authorizes logging in areas where forests have become too dense.

"Logging doesn't keep fire out. No one makes that claim," Bales stresses. "The scientists will tell you that in the forests that have not been managed or in places where we've kept fire out for decades, those forests become overly dense and the studies we've seen say to remove ground fuel, reduce fuels growing up to the lowest-hanging branches and thin density."

Most scientists agree with that, but, as DellaSela points out, many thinning projects have not only been ineffective, they've contributed to fire danger. Studies indicate that many wildfires, such as the recent forest fire in the Selkirk Mountains west of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, are the result of a tree-thinning project designed to reduce the risk of fire. Instead, logging companies removed the large, old-growth trees that are the most fire-resistant -- and the most valuable.

"Big old trees that have been out there for hundreds of years or more can build up a fire-resistant layer of tar that allows them to withstand forest fires," DellaSala explains "The fires tend to clear out the under-story and leave the big trees. Logging has done the opposite -- removed the big trees and left behind the smaller and more flammable ones. This will make matters worse, not better. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act is not about thinning the small trees, it's about getting to the bigger trees."

But both Democrats and Republicans supporting the bill argue that the Restoration Act specifically protects large trees like the ones logging companies profit from and instead focuses on clearing underbrush and other forest fuel around communities in danger of forest fire.

"The conversation about old growth is sidetracking the issue," Bales says. "A lot of people are getting hung up on old growth, which is well protected in the law, in my view."

Opponents are skeptical.

"We see that the language [of the bill] as it is has got enough loopholes to drive many log trucks through. It has no teeth," says Petersen of the Lands Council. "They call every project 'protect and restore.' What they do is they go in and remove as many [trees] as they can, ancient or not."

"[The Lands Council's] position is to completely end commercial logging on national forests," notes Bales. "It's an extreme position. There are a lot of groups who came together to help and support [this legislation], like the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society in Idaho. Their support is qualified."

In fact, both the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society in Idaho oppose the legislation.

"It doesn't do enough to protect communities at risk from wildfire," says Chris Mehl, a representative from the Bozeman, Mont., office of the Wilderness Society. "Putting people first has to be the priority, and this comes short of that."

Mehl isn't sure why the Wilderness Society is cited as a supporter of the Restoration Act, but says it's been inaccurately reported that several environmental organizations, including the Wilderness Society, support the bill and that advocates of the Restoration Act have run with those reports.

"Perhaps that's their position now, which is too bad," Bales' comments after learning the groups oppose the bill. "Especially in the face of overwhelming support for forest management from the president's office, Congress, community leaders, tribes, scientists, resource managers, firefighters, wildlife groups, labor and the majority of American voters. This train has left the station -- it would be much more constructive if they'd get on board."

President Bush, with re-election looming, could benefit from the Restoration Act by gaining votes in big logging states. In 2000, he lost Oregon by less than half a percentage point, and Washington by less than 6 percentage points. More logging may provide jobs for many in the Pacific Northwest.

But Petersen says loggers haven't lost their jobs because of environmentalists who oppose cutting trees.

"[Timber companies] still export raw logs off of private land," he says, explaining that companies, in order to save money, send trees overseas to be processed before returning to the States to sell them; it's cheaper overall for the industry. That, Petersen claims, and automation, has put loggers out of work.

Still, the timber industry has spent more than $20 million in the past three years lobbying for its cause, donated over $10 million to political campaigns (80 percent of which went to Republicans) and gave Bush more than $500,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Opponents call the president's signing of the Restoration Act a payback to the timber industry.

Mehl, with the Wilderness Society, says that even though Bush has approved $760 million annually for the Restoration Act, no money has been appropriated.

"Authorizing says how you can spend money. Appropriations say what money you can spend," Mehl explains. "So basically, there have been promises made."

Those promises include relaxing regulations on environmental and endangered species impact statements where logging areas designated in the Restoration Act are involved.

"The intent is not to destroy fish and wildlife habitat or to throw public involvement out the window," Bales explains. "If you're a forester and you're looking at a forest that's unhealthy, your stand should be, 'What do I need to leave here?' It's not what they take, necessarily, in the scheme of fuel reduction. How do we ensure the forest that's left behind can survive lethal fire?"

Environmentalists say the Restoration Act uses fire prevention as a means to get at more trees and fewer environmental restrictions. Bush, they say, like Smokey Bear, is using an over-simplified message to handle a complex ecosystem.

"North Idaho is uniquely fortunate to have the only caribou living on public land," Petersen says. "[Timber companies] will sign off timber sale after timber sale saying, 'No impact to the caribou, no impact to the grizzly bear, no impact to the lynx.' If that were really true, why are they nearly extinct?"

New Rules -- Here are some of the high points of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003. In the following, the term ''Secretary concerned'' refers to which government official is responsible for a particular piece of public land: The Secretary of Agriculture with respect to National Forest System lands, and the Secretary of the Interior with respect to public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

* The bill authorizes thinning on 20 million acres of federal land.

* The bill authorizes $760 million annually for fuel reduction projects on public lands; 50 percent of the money must be spent on projects around communities.

* The Secretary concerned will be responsible for determining when old and large trees are cut down, as well as maintaining a diverse ecosystem within forests subjected to fuel reduction.

* The Secretary concerned is not required to seek alternative information, studies or examinations of the environmental assessment and endangered species impact statements.

* There must be public notice and collaboration before each fuel reduction project.

* The Secretary concerned has 90 days to determine whether or not a fuel reduction project can go forward.

* Any suit against a fuel reduction project must be filed within 15 days of public notice of the project and there is a 45-day limit on preliminary injunctions. There is no appeals process.

* Any court ordering a block in a fuel reduction project will have to be reconsidered every 60 days.

* $25 million will be designated for grant recipients for each year and will be given for using biomass [timber] as a raw material to produce electric energy, sensible heat, transportation fuels, or substitutes for petroleum-based products. Each grant will not exceed $100,000.

* Up to $15 million a year will be put toward a State Forest Stewardship Coordinating Committee to prioritize watershed forestry projects.

* The Secretary concerned may designate extensive studies for insect infestation, and can order timber harvest, thinning, burning or other methods necessary to rid acreage of infestation without an environmental impact assessment of the land. The Secretary cannot apply this to more than 250,000 acres a year.

* The Secretary concerned will found a healthy forests reserve program for up to one million acres, taking private lands and enacting a conservation plan.

Publication date: 12/11/03

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