WASHINGTON — President Bush signed legislation into law Wednesday that will permit the thinning of trees to prevent massive forest fires.
Rep. Richard Pombo,R-Calif.,pushed for the law and was among those on stage with the president during the signing in the Jefferson Auditorium at the Department of Agriculture.
Chuck Leavell,keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and a tree farmer in Georgia who has written a book on forestry and conservation,played the national anthem.
The new law is similar to the “Healthy Forests Initiative” Bush proposed in August 2002. The bipartisan law authorizes $760 million annually for thinning projects in 20 million acres of the country’s most at-risk areas.
The law will speed up judicial review,streamline the environmental review process and protect old-growth forests.
Bush said the law “marked a clear and decisive change in direction” for forest policy to protect America’s forests.
“The legislation that I sign today carries forward this ethic of stewardship,” Bush said.
Bush thanked Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman,who hosted the event. Firefighters,dressed in the greens and yellows of their work uniforms,stood behind him. A tiny forest of ferns and small shrubs sat on the floor in front of the stage.
Bush praised the bill,calling it a “common sense” solution to “what had been an acrimonious debate.”
Pombo,chairman of the House Resources Committee,and Sen. Dianne Feinstein,D-Calif.,helped push the legislation through the House and Senate.
Feinstein was not at Wednesday’s signing because she had to be in California taking care of other business,her spokesman said.
“This is the strongest environmental-protection bill signed into law since the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act,” Pombo said in a statement.
Environmentalists remain skeptical,however,and believe the bill may be a handout to logging companies.
Neil Gamboa,a firefighter with the Del Rosa Hotshots in the San Bernardino National Forest in California,was on stage during the ceremony. The firefighter,who helped fight the Southern California wildfires,said the law would “show communities we care” by helping protect property and homes. The Hotshots are a special team of firefighters that specializes in dangerous or inaccessible fires on difficult terrain.
The legislation,which has been on hold for eight years,finally gained momentum in October as wildfires raged in Southern California.
California forestry officials welcomed the new law.
Dan Young,the Stanislaus forest’s resource management program leader,said he does not know yet how much money the forest will get but that the money will continue to pay for thinning efforts already under way.
The key,Young said,is to remove brush and small trees up to nine or 10 inches in diameter to keep fires from climbing to tree crowns — and ultimately threaten or overwhelm nearby communities.
Young said that in recent years,Stanislaus has devoted about 75 percent of its fuel-reduction work to areas in and around settled areas and that would continue under the Healthy Forests Initiative.
Jack Blackwell,who is in charge of all of California’s national forests,said he’s pleased that Congress “has finally given us some of the tools we need to get at the problem.”
Blackwell said fuel-reduction projects ultimately would be tailored to meet the needs of individual communities.
“The legislation calls for those plans to be developed in a good,open process that allows us to build on the good work of local fire-safe councils,” he said.
Blackwell said 12 million of the 20 million acres in California most at risk of burning are in national forests.
“There’s more than enough areas in California to work on,” he said.
Francis P. Garland of the (Stockton,Calif.) Record contributed to this report.