US wildfire act could aid timber industry

On December 3, US President George W Bush gave the green light to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, declaring that it would "help to prevent catastrophic wildfires". But the legislation, requiring US $760 million to be spent annually, is described by environmental groups as a giveaway to the timber industry. The measure, they contend, will dilute environmental safeguards, reduce public participation, limit judicial review and open the door to widespread thinning of forests

 
By Lopamudra Banerjee Dhar
Published: Wednesday 31 December 2003

-- (Credit: FEMA)on december 3, us President George W Bush gave the green light to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, declaring that it would "help to prevent catastrophic wildfires". But the legislation, requiring us $760 million to be spent annually, is described by environmental groups as a giveaway to the timber industry. The measure, they contend, will dilute environmental safeguards, reduce public participation, limit judicial review and open the door to widespread thinning of forests.

Prior to the presidential nod, congress had cleared the bill in the second week of November. A political gridlock had stalled its passage in the senate but a compromise was reached, with the Democrats demanding that at least 50 per cent of the forest-thinning funds be dedicated to areas near communities. In fact, the law has taken a severe beating ever since it was formulated.

The act has been opposed on two grounds. Firstly, it is feared that old natural forests and sensitive lands will be opened up to logging. And, secondly, the Senate Agriculture Committee has widened the scope for thinning in national forests. Jay Watson, regional director of non-governmental organisation (ngo) The Wilderness Society, believes that the legislation could be made more effective if it works across all land ownerships, focuses on removing brush, litter and woody material on the forest floor, and gives primacy to community protection. On the latter issue, he feels that the allocation of 50 per cent is too little. "It should be at least 75 per cent," he points out, adding: "Wildfire does not recognise property boundaries, our response must not be constrained by them either."

Apart from The Wilderness Society, other ngos that have been rallying against the bill include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, American Rivers, National Audubon Society and us Public Interest Research Group. They have written several times to senators in this regard and raised important issues in the missives.

One of their worries is that the act weakens the thrust of what courts had called for in asking for alternatives to environmentally damaging activities such as logging and road-building. The activists also allege that the law eliminates environmental review for a category of logging projects up to 1,000 acres (405 hectares). Furthermore, it replaces the current statutorily established appeals process with a procedure that does not allow appeals of final agency decisions.

So what is the real reason for passing this bill? The Bush administration maintains that the main purpose is averting forest fires like those that scorched Southern California this year. But environmentalists are sceptical. The true motivation is to open national forests to a new wave of logging, says Watson. To support his argument, he stresses that the act sets aside no money for removing small trees and bush -- the real fuel for future fires. "(The authorities') intention was to pay for them by felling large, valuable trees -- essentially cutting down the very forests they are supposedly trying to save."

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