Rhetoric thins, discussion begins on McInnis’ forest bill
Following fiery debate between U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis and environmentalists over thinning flammable national forests, can cooler heads prevail?
McInnis, R-Grand Junction, and his critics now say they’re willing to discuss his forest thinning bill, the Healthy Forests Reform Act. McInnis also is talking with Democrats in Congress, including U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder.
“We want to get a bipartisan consensus on this and we’re willing to work on it,” said Blair Jones, a spokesman for McInnis.
McInnis also gained support this month for his bill from Club 20, a Western Slope political organization. Club 20’s board said national forests are stuck in “a procedural morass” of laws and lawsuits while catastrophic fire conditions spread throughout the West.
Club 20 said the McInnis bill offers “comprehensive management and procedural reforms.”
A separate forest thinning bill is under debate in the U.S. Senate. It would give federal judges just 60 days to delay controversial thinning projects.
Environmentalists and some Democrats say the proposal is a giveaway to logging companies, while Republicans and the timber industry say none but extreme cases should be subject to any judicial review.
Talks on the Senate bill have broken down, turning the focus to McInnis’ House legislation.
Environmentalists levied sharp criticism against the McInnis plan last week through newspaper advertisements and press releases.
“Are they interested in talking, or are we going to continue on this path?” asked McInnis spokesman Blair Jones.
“The stakes are too high and the costs too great to our communities and the public’s forests if we do nothing to reach an agreement on this debate,” McInnis wrote in a letter to environmental groups last week.
“That’s a very generous gesture,” said Steve Smith, of Glenwood Springs, a Sierra Club staffer, “and we of course hope that the gesture transforms itself into real cooperation and real changes from their current bill.”
McInnis’ bill proposes streamlining the process for logging to be approved by the Forest Service under the National Environmental Policy Act.
With objections, those approvals can take years. McInnis said that’s too long with the extreme fire danger in many forests. He wants the administrative process cut to 120 days.
“The authors of NEPA recognized that alternative procedures would be needed in certain emergency circumstances,” McInnis said. “If the West’s wildfire epidemic isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is.”
Environmentalists contend the shortened process avoids environmental review and provides little chance to oppose logging plans.
“Rather than changing the rules and saying people are not allowed to object to fuel reduction projects,” Smith said, “we should make sure they are really fuel reduction projects to begin with.”
Environmentalists say too much of McInnis’ bill pertains to backcountry logging, when the greatest need is to thin forest fuels in the “red zone,” also known as the urban-wildland interface, where wildfires threaten homes.
Meanwhile, Udall and U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, are co-sponsoring a separate, bipartisan forest thinning measure.
In a news release Wednesday, Udall called for the Forest Service and other land management agencies to focus limited resources where homes are threatened.
Of 19,296 acres treated by thinning or controlled burns in Colorado in fiscal year 2002, only half were in the red zone, said Udall.
The Forest Service plan is to increase that to 72 percent of projects over the next year. But Udall said the Forest Service definition of red zones includes watersheds, wildlife habitats – areas that may not be near homes.
Lawrence Pacheco, Udall’s spokesman, said protecting watersheds is important, but the focus needs to be on reducing fire danger in the urban-wildland interface.
Jones says the red zone is the top priority in McInnis’ bill.
The bill, similar to a forest initiative recently unveiled by President Bush, came under further fire this week when a group of fire scientists criticized fast-action thinning plans.
The scientists, including two from Colorado universities, say the measures would allow backcountry logging of old-growth and mature trees. They say scientific evidence is mixed on this approach. Some studies show it reduces fire intensity, and others show it can increase fire intensity and severity.
“In short, the variation among our forested landscapes is much too great for one treatment to be appropriate everywhere,” they said in a joint letter to Bush and Congress.
Jones said much of the criticism of McInnis’ bill contains “half-truths.”
“It’s talking about stuff that we are not promoting,” he said.
McInnis repeatedly cites Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s move to expedite a thinning project in the Black Hills National Forest, in Daschle’s home state of South Dakota.
McInnis’ bill provides for such exemptions, but he said, “If we make the system more workable, the need for these special exemptions simply won’t exist in the future.”
Smith is anxious to see McInnis’ real interest in addressing environmental concerns over forest thinning proposals.
The congressman’s record is mixed on incorporating environmental concerns into legislation.
“It’s always good to have conversations, but it’s very frustrating if what we say doesn’t have any effect,” Smith said.
He believes McInnis will have to show some give with his forest thinning bill.
“I don’t think a bill is going to move in the House without real strong bipartisan agreement on its contents,” said Smith.
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