WASHINGTON - Responding to requests from President Bush and Montana Gov. Judy Martz, the House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a wildfires bill aimed at reducing the threat of fire and improving forest health.
Passage of a bill revealed the rift between Western Republicans and Democrats over how the nation's forests should be managed.
Wyoming Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin and Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg both voted for the bill and against reject an alternative offered by Western Democrats. The bill passed 256 to 170 with the backing of 42 Democrats. The alternative failed 184 to 239.
Martz, who is a Republican and the chairwoman of the Western Governors Association, joined President Bush at the White House on Tuesday morning for an event in which they called for Congress to complete work on a forest health bill.
Supporters of the two proposals disagree about where the federal government should focus its efforts to improve forest health and whether environmental and judicial reviews should be expedited.
Critics of the Western Republicans' bill say it does not focus enough on the areas immediately around communities and places too much power in the hands of government officials. The legislation would expedite environmental and judicial reviews, giving the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior the authority to harvest timber with a high risk of disease, insect infestation and burning.
"For too many years, bureaucratic tangles and bad forest policy have prevented foresters from keeping our woodlands healthy and safe," President Bush said. "The cost to America has been high, in the loss of lives and property, and in the destruction of woodlands and wildlife."
Senators have not yet begun work on a bill. A bill must be passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the president to become law. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has led past efforts in the Senate, said he had just begun discussions with Republicans.
Republicans and Democrats agree that the forests are in an unhealthy condition because years of fire suppression have led to a build up of dead trees and other flammable debris, but they disagree on how to improve the situation.
"There has been no management of the forests for so many years that the forest floor is overrun with fire tinder," Cubin said. "It is an unnatural situation."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, who led the Western Democrats' effort, agrees that the nation's forests need to be fixed, but wants the federal government to focus its efforts on the "wildland-urban interface," which is the area where communities abut forests. Miller's proposal would define this area as the half-mile around communities.
"You want to deal with the problem that we have agreed exists around communities," Miller said. "You now have a bill with no discipline - there are no priorities."
Miller said the Western Republicans' bill would permit timber companies to cut mature trees in the backwoods far from communities.
When the bill's main author Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., responded, "Thatís an emotional argument," Miller hollered back. "It also happens to be true."
Supporters of McInnis' bill say that focusing on only the half-mile around communities would not solve the problem and would harm Western communities.
"The forests are not just unsafe in the half-mile around a community," Rehberg said. "That doesnít help my guys who are trying to make a living out in the forests or whose communities are dependent on healthy forests. Tourists come to see healthy forests."
Western Democrats and Republicans also squared off on limiting environmental and judicial reviews of forest thinning projects.
The Western Republicans' bill aims to prevent efforts to thin forests from getting mired in court by requiring a judge to revisit any injunction every 45 days. Under current law, an injunction does not have to be reviewed. It also would allow the Agriculture and Interior Department secretaries to authorize clearcuts of up to 1,000 acres for "scientific" research.
The Western Democrats proposal would not have placed limits on judicial reviews and would only limit environmental reviews in the half-mile around communities. They say the proposal would give Agriculture Department under secretary for natural resources and environment Mark E. Rey too much power. Rey has worked for the American Forest and Paper Association and National Forest Products Association, which are both timber industry groups.
"This would hand over the national forest to Mark Rey, which is like turning the banking system over to Bonnie and Clyde," Miller said.
Western Republicans said that the limits are needed to prevent environmental groups from slowing down or stopping efforts to improve the health of forests.
A recent report by the federally funded, non-partisan General Accounting Office (GAO) found that litigation by environmentalists stopped a relatively small number of projects. Western Republicans say that the report is flawed.
"The GAO looks at it specifically from a numerical point," Rehberg said. "Statistics donít tell the whole story about what recommendations would have been made but were not because of the anticipation of the time and expense of the process. It was a study done by guys in white shirts and ties behind desks in Washington, D.C."