Democrats axe forest thinning plan

By Robert Gehrke The Associated Press
Wednesday October 09, 2002

WASHINGTON— A House committee approved a bill Tuesday designed to reduce the threat of wildfires, but key Democrats withdrew their support and left prospects for wildfire legislation this year uncertain. 

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., joined Republicans last week in endorsing the legislation, which Republicans had hoped would help move the bill through the Democratic-controlled Senate, where other fire-treatment plans have stalemated in partisan battles. 

But after intense negotiations Tuesday, Miller and DeFazio backed out. They said the proposal was too sweeping. 

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., the bill’s sponsor, said he believes he is close to agreement with his Democratic colleagues and committed himself to continuing negotiations. 

“We came very close to an agreement. I hope at some point we will be able to get that,” McInnis said. 

Drought and overgrown forests led to one of the most severe fire seasons on record this year, with more than 6.5 million acres charred. 

House and Senate Republicans have joined President Bush in demanding speeded-up projects to cut excess trees that fuel wildfires. Democrats and environmentalists argue their proposals undermine environmental protections and would benefit timber companies. 

McInnis’ proposal would seek to expedite logging in overgrown forests by streamlining environmental studies, requiring the government to look at fewer alternatives, and tightening deadlines for administrative and judicial appeals. Seventy percent of the forest treatment projects would have to be focused on areas where the federal land abuts homes or water supplies. 

After the bill was put into writing, the Democrats grew uneasy about some of its provisions. 

Miller said he was unsatisfied with how the bill defined acreage where the expedited review would apply, and he wanted more public involvement. DeFazio said drafts of the bill still did not include language he wanted that would protect old-growth trees and clarify the judicial appeals process. 

All sides said they would continue negotiations, but time is running out on the congressional session. 

“I don’t think this thing is over yet,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., adding that Wednesday would be critical for the future of the fire legislation.