WASHINGTON - The House approved a bill Wednesday to speed up salvage logging of burned forests and the planting of new trees after storms and wildfires.
The bill, approved 243-182, demands that federal land hit by disasters greater than 1,000 acres be restored within months, rather than years - time in which the commercial value of fire-killed timber diminishes as insects and rot set in.
"As Americans, we like our wood products," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the bill's chief sponsor. "We build homes and furniture from wood. So if you're going to use wood, doesn't it make sense to first use burned, dead trees, rather than cut down rain forests?"
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., has proposed a similar measure.
The measure's co-sponsor in the House, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., called it a common-sense plan "that will be good for the environment and the economy as well."
But most Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that cutting large old trees and planting new ones results in forests that are more vulnerable to new fires and less valuable as habitat for fish and wildlife. They say it is better to allow forests to come back on their own.
Forty-one Democrats joined 202 Republicans in supporting the bill.
Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., was the only Western Republican to vote against the bill. Spokeswoman Kimberly Cadena said Reichert believes that environmental exemptions in the bill were unnecessary to remove salvaged timber.
"There are laws in place right now so that salvage logging can occur … to prevent the spread of invasive species" and water quality degradation, Cadena said.
Opponents also criticized the bill's name, the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act.
"Here we go again," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash. "We have a clear skies bill, and we get more pollution, a deficit reduction bill and get more deficits. Now we have a forest recovery bill with less science and less common sense by the American people."
Inslee and other critics said the bill could result in young, densely stocked "timber plantations" that are prone to sudden "blowups" of extreme fire and can start crown fires in nearby stands of old-growth timber.
They also said the measure would help large timber companies log in areas where they are now barred, such as roadless areas in remote forests.
Walden and Baird disputed that, saying the bill specifically bars planting trees in evenly spaced rows, commonly called plantations, and would require that temporary roads built to accommodate logging be destroyed as soon as the harvest is completed.
Environmentalists remained skeptical, saying it was unlikely that a road would be "unbuilt" once it is in place. They cited a backlog of road maintenance projects in national totaling tens of thousands of miles.
Walden and Baird proposed the bill last fall, after the Forest Service took two years to start selling timber killed by the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire in southern Oregon. The agency still has not sold all the wood that officials projected, nearly four years after the July 2002 fire.
The bill would give public land agencies 30 days after a catastrophe to come up with a plan, with a 90-day public comment period after that. Court action would be allowed thereafter.
Walden, chairman of the House Resources forestry subcommittee, called the bill "thoughtful, responsible policy" that will allow federal land managers to restore and manage federal forests in the same way as states, local governments tribes and private landowners.
Currently, environmental analyses can take a year or more, followed by lengthy appeals or court battles. During that time, the commercial value of fire-killed timber steadily declines.
Many environmental groups denounced the House action as a windfall for timber companies that have supported Walden and other lawmakers. But the Society of American Foresters praised the House vote.
"The key is quick recovery," said Michael Goergen, chief executive of the forestry group, which represents more than 15,000 forestry professionals.
"It's not only cost effective to restore forests immediately after a catastrophic event, but it also makes sense for the environment," Goergen said.
The House bill generated national controversy this spring, after some Oregon State University faculty who favor so-called salvage logging tried to delay publication of a study that questioned the value of the practice.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management briefly withheld university funding while the Bush administration sorted out whether the study by graduate student Daniel Donato violated a prohibition against lobbying Congress. The funding was restored after criticism by Democratic lawmakers.
On the Net: Information on the bill, H.R. 4200, is at http://thomas.loc.gov
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