Forest bill rationale is smokescreen for hidden agenda |

Forest bill rationale is smokescreen for hidden agenda

In these pages, 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis recently cited a litany of justifications for his Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA). Most of these justifications are just blowing smoke.

First, the HFRA’s focus on federal lands is critically misplaced ” 92 percent of the land threatening communities is private, state or tribal ” not federal. Yet HFRA focuses almost exclusively on federal lands. Congressman McInnis knows this. Last year he told the Aspen Times that his legislation “would not have had an effect on the Coal Seam Fire” and consequently would have done nothing to protect the 29 homes that burned.

Instead of fruitlessly seeking to fireproof forests that naturally burn, we can adapt to live safely in fire-prone areas. Many homes and small communities emerged unscathed from some of the most sensational wildfires of recent years.

Questioning how one house can burn and the one next door survive, Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen found the most effective and efficient way to prevent homes from igniting (and protect residents’ and firefighters’ lives) is to focus fire mitigation efforts on the building itself and its immediate vicinity. This means creating defensible spaces around homes, using fire-resistant building materials, and installing fire-resistant landscaping.

Justifying HFRA, McInnis and the Bush administration claim that western wildfires are raging because the Forest Service can’t perform fuels reduction due to environmental appeals and litigation.

Four separate General Accounting Office reports found that administrative appeals and litigation are an insignificant source of delay to fuel reduction projects. For instance, one GAO study found that 95 percent of the 818 Forest Service fuels-reduction projects in 2001 and 2002 were ready for implementation within the standard 90-day review period. Meanwhile, 97 percent of Forest Service fuels-reduction projects in 2001 and 2002 proceeded without litigation.

Indeed, the report found that “the main reasons fuel-reduction projects could not proceed were due to the weather and the diversion of fuel-reduction funds to fight wildfires.” Weather accounted for over 40 percent, while diversion of agency funding and staff from fuels reduction to firefighting accounted for 30 percent of fuels-reduction project delays.

In April, an extensive Northern Arizona University report further concluded only 4.2 percent fuel-reduction projects nationwide were appealed.

Scapegoating appeals is the Bush administration’s hidden agenda to undermine basic environmental regulations that allow public participation in decisions affecting public lands. Appeals are democracy in action. As eloquently stated by a federal judge in Montana, Forest Service appeals “allow the democratic process of participation in governmental decisions the full breadth and scope to which citizens are entitled in a participatory democracy.”

Notably, McInnis highlights the Hayman Fire and appeals of the Upper South Platte Project as justification for HFRA. Yet the facts only demonstrate the false pretense for this law.

Appeals of this project had virtually no effect on the Hayman Fire ” it burned very little of the project area. Environmental appeals focused on thinning in roadless areas; these roadless areas accounted for just 2 percent of the Hayman Fire area. Indeed, the Hayman Fire roared through commercially logged and thinned areas with nary a hiccup, slowing only when it reached previously burned forest. Critically, on-the-ground implementation would have taken five to eight years, well after the Hayman Fire struck.

Unfortunately, the HFRA is now law. Hopefully, local White River Forest officials won’t abuse its discretion when implementing projects under HFRA’s authority. By working across boundaries with local communities to focus forest thinning projects in areas that pose the greatest threat to our lives and communities, the WRNF can prove that it’s above politics and has the best interests of local communities at heart.

” Sloan Shoemaker is the executive director of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.

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