McInnis thins wilderness areas from reform bill |

McInnis thins wilderness areas from reform bill

In response to objections raised by environmentalists, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis has revised his forest thinning bill to exclude wilderness areas from its hurry-up review provisions.

“I share your concerns about management in wilderness areas. The Healthy Forest Reform Act will be modified to exclude wilderness areas from the expedited process,” he wrote in a letter to environmentalists Wednesday.

But a Wilderness Society representative said the Grand Junction Republican still has a long way to go in making his measure palatable.

“He’s gutting the appeals process and limiting judicial review” for forest thinning projects under his bill, said Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society.

Responding Wednesday to concerns raised in a letter by 16 environmental groups Friday regarding his bill, McInnis defended its attempt to abbreviate the process for getting approval of thinning projects to reduce fire danger.

“While the need to protect communities and the environment is urgent, my process maintains public participation, is based on scientific analysis and continues environmental protections,” McInnis wrote.

The exchange of letters followed McInnis’ invitation to environmentalists to help him with his bill, which largely mirrors a forest initiative promoted by President Bush.

Suzanne Jones expressed disappointment Wednesday over McInnis’ response to the concerns environmentalists raised.

“We’re glad that he asked for our opinion, and it’s a shame that he ignored it,” she said.

She was little impressed by the concession regarding wilderness areas, calling it “outrageous” that the bill ever allowed for an expedited review process in these areas to begin with. Wilderness is generally far from communities, she said.

“If we get a fire, it’s the safest place to be burning,” she said.

McInnis and his spokesman, Blair Jones, said environmentalists had raised a valid concern, which is why they modified the bill.

But Blair Jones added that the McInnis bill always has been more focused on process, not places. And he objected to continuing assertions by environmentalists that it emphasizes backcountry thinning while doing too little to protect communities.

“All along, the focus of this legislation and the priority has been for the protection of the urban/wildland interface,” he said.

At the same time, he said, it remains important to focus on protection of watersheds that supply community drinking water, even if they are located away from communities.

In his letter, McInnis cited watershed problems created this summer by major fires in the Denver and Durango areas.

He also said speeding up thinning projects can protect environmental resources from fire.

“For example, on the Biscuit fire in Oregon State, over 150,000 acres of habitat for a threatened species was burned, leaving much of this acreage unsuitable to support this species,” he wrote.

McInnis says his legislation will cut the review time for thinning projects from years to months.

In his letter, he detailed the reasons for hurrying things up. This fire season has been the worst in the last 50 years, he wrote, with more than 6 million acres burned, 20 firefighters killed on duty, hundreds of families left without homes and thousands more evacuated.

“Millions of acres remain at risk, meaning these scenes of human suffering and environmental degradation will be played out again and again if we don’t act now,” he wrote.

Suzanne Jones said there is no need to dilute the current environmental review process to reduce fire danger. She said existing law allows for small fuel thinning and burning projects to be moved along quickly in emergency circumstances.

Environmentalists also say McInnis has characterized 190 million acres as being at a high risk of catastrophic fire, but the Forest Service found only 74.6 million acres that fit in that category, and only 35.3 million acres that are appropriate for thinning.

Wrote McInnis, “You may quibble with the numbers of at-risk lands cited in my legislation, but the land management professionals and the scientists who established them don’t. The scope of the wildland fire threat is massive and should not be understated.”

Suzanne Jones said that to say 160 million more acres are at risk than is actually the case “is a bit of an overexaggeration, I would say – not nitpicking.”

Environmentalists also contend that 92 percent of the urban/wildlife interface land at high risk is nonfederal.

“Thus, legislative efforts truly focused on protecting homes and communities must address the fire risk that exists on nonfederal lands adjacent to communities,” they wrote to McInnis.

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