WASHINGTON - Few projects to reduce wildfire threats were long delayed because of environmental challenges, congressional auditors say. The conclusion runs counter to the position taken by the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress for scaling back studies and appeals.
The General Accounting Office found that three-fourths of the 762 Forest Service projects to cut wildfire risk in the past two years went ahead without any challenge. That allowed treatment such as logging or controlled burning on 3.8 million acres of national forests.
Projects that were challenged by environmental groups or other parties generally move ahead within 90 days, according to the report by the investigative arm of Congress.
The House is getting ready to consider legislation aimed at speeding up efforts to reduce trees and brush from overgrown forests. The bill by Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., would streamline environmental studies and limit appeals on as many as 20 million acres.
The administration is rewriting rules that would make it easier to conduct forest treatments.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the report shows such changes are not needed.
"A comprehensive reading of the report makes it clear that the vast majority of forest-thinning projects move ahead without delay," he said.
Republicans note that the bulk of the forest projects were exempt from appeals, and 59 percent of those that could be appealed were challenged, creating a delay in projects to treat 900,000 acres of forestland.
Josh Penry, staff director for the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, said a 90-day delay, on top of a 30-day comment period required by the Forest Service, ignores the imminent threat of fire.
"If a project is appealed in April or May, and a fire lays waste to the landscape in July, that 90- to 120-day delay meant all of the difference in the world," he said.
The auditors reported that 35 percent of the projects meant to reduce the risk to homes near national forests - areas all sides say should be a top priority - were appealed.
"After all of the environmental spin about focusing projects on protecting communities, now we find that environmental groups are aggressively challenging community protection projects too," McInnis said.
A Forest Service report last summer said almost half of treatment projects were appealed. It blamed environmental groups for the delays.
Huge fires in Arizona and Colorado burned forests where portions of projects meant to reduce the fire threat were tied up in appeals.
A century of aggressive fire suppression has left forests thick with brush and small trees that have put 40 million acres at risk for wildfires. More than 7 million acres across the West burned in the second-worst fire season in 50 years.
Most agree excess trees need to be cut down or areas burned in controlled situations.
Mike Francis of the Wilderness Society said the GAO figures show "the democratic process is working."
The GAO looked at 762 planned projects on 4.7 million acres of national forests. Sixty percent of those projects had no environmental studies that could be appealed. Of the remaining 305 projects that could be appealed, 180 were challenged.
Most were resolved within the Forest ServiceÃ s required 90-day time frame, but 39 took longer because of staff shortages, a backlog of appeals, or to give the parties time to negotiate a resolution.
And 133 of the 180 appealed projects went ahead without change, while 16 proceeded with some modifications, and 19 were blocked. Twelve others were withdrawn by the Forest Service.
The GAO noted that the Forest Service chief can go ahead with treatment despite appeals if the project is deemed an emergency. The Forest Service did not use the exemption in the two years studied.
The study also said that just 23 of the 762 projects were challenged in court - 3 percent of the overall number. McInnis' legislation includes direction to judges and deadlines the court must meet when it is considering challenges to forest thinning projects to prevent the cases from bogging down.