WASHINGTON – While the Senate continued Tuesday to squabble over different versions of a bill aimed at keeping the nation’s forests healthy,wildfires raged in 12 western states.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee drew on the expertise of western governors,the Department of Agriculture and western forest,water and ecological workers in helping members consider two Senate bills and a bill backed by the Bush administration that has passed the House. No consensus was formed.
“I'm embarrassed at this committee,” said Sen. Conrad Burns,R-Mont.,who was the only member of the committee still at the hearing when it ended. “What's at stake here is political power and money.”
The Bush administration supports the House bill that,among other provisions,authorizes a $25 million annual grant program through 2008 to thin forests,remove hazardous fuels — dry underbrush and small trees — on the forest floor and reduce or contain the risk of disease or insect infestation,said Mark Rey,undersecretary of natural resources and environment for Department of Agriculture.
Removing forest floor fuel is often accomplished through controlled burns. Proposed burns can be controversial and are sometimes challenged in court.
The controversy in the House bill primarily centered on a provision requiring a court to act within 15 days of a the final departmental decision about an appeal against a fuels-reduction authorization.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman,D-N.M.,does not have the court deadline in a bill he is sponsoring. He said the judicial review policy might not be necessary because a General Accounting Office report said only 3 percent of fuels reduction appeals end up in court.
Rey said the GAO report was flawed because it included small controlled burns that never end up in court. He said every major fire in 2003 has or will end up in court.
“The devil is in the details,” Rey said. “What do we want to protect more,the judicial process or the forests?”
The Senate Agricultural Committee is expected to vote Wednesday on the House bill,but some members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee said they doubted the bill will be approved by the full Senate.
Sen. Ron Wyden,D-Ore.,said he thinks the House bill could not get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster,in which opponents would not allow a vote. His bill,co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein,D-Calif.,would focus more of the money on at-risk forests near the greatest number of people and structures.
Rey said he was concerned with a provision in Wyden and Feinstein's bill that sets a perimeter around communities. Outside those lines,forests would not receive federal funding for treatment. He said that fires that start just outside that boundary could be disastrous. However,Feinstein said she would be willing to amend the bill to include many of the administration's concerns.
Gov. Janet Napolitano,D-Ariz.,said elements of all three bills together would be an effective plan. Napolitano and Gov. Judy Martz,R-Mont.,said more of a 10-year comprehensive strategy on healthy forests written by the government and the Western Governors Association should be included in the final bill.
Martz reminded the committee that fires were burning in 12 western states.
In addition to improving fire prevention and suppression and reducing hazardous fuels,the 10-year plan calls for taking other actions with communities to increase the natural resistance of forests to fires.
The overriding theme for the western forest,water and ecological experts at the hearing was that Congress needs to do something — and fast. Last year,Congress failed to pass similar legislation.
“It's time for help,” said Bruce Vincent,from Libby,Mont.,president of Alliance for America,a conservation group. “Not rhetoric,not flowing words,but help.”