Senators hammer out deal on wildfire legislation

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Wednesday announced the details of a balanced, bipartisan compromise on healthy forests legislation that he said would streamline “restorative forestry” in at-risk and unhealthy forests, yet preserve public input, protect old growth and “rein in” provisions of a bill approved earlier by the House.

“This agreement provides for the first-ever statutory protection of old growth, preserves the public’s right to participate, and streamlines the appeals process to eliminate some of its worst abuses,” Wyden said.

“Perhaps most importantly, our work over the last week rejects the notion that we can protect communities from catastrophic fires solely by relying on commercial sales to fund that important work.”

The agreement is very similar to the tentative wildfire agreement reported widely in the media last week. However, Wyden said, Wednesday’s compromise differs in two significant aspects:

1. The agreement recognizes the need to fund the protection of public and private forest lands and does not rely primarily on commercial sales to accomplish needed fire reduction work.

Instead it adopts the funding provision contained in earlier Wyden-Feinstein legislation by authorizing $760 million annually for hazardous fuel reduction projects, a $340 million increase over the currently appropriated level of funding.

2. The agreement locates a forest health research center in Prineville, at the headquarters of the Ochoco National Forest. The Prineville center, adopted from the Wyden-Feinstein legislation, will complement an East Coast research center created under the House-passed legislation that will be located in Starkville, Miss.

Specifically, the compromise agreement announced Wednesday does the following:

–Provides the first-ever statutory recognition and meaningful protection of old-growth forests.

·Never before has Congress recognized by statute the importance of maintaining old-growth stands. Under the compromise, the Forest Service must protect these trees by preventing the agency from logging the most fire-resilient trees under the guise of fuels reduction.

·Where old growth stands are healthy, as they are throughout much of the forest on the west side of the Cascade Ridge in Oregon, the compromise requires that they be “fully maintained.”

·The compromise makes it less likely that old growth will be harvested under current law by mandating the retention of large trees and focusing the hazardous fuels reduction projects authorized by this bill on thinning small diameter trees.

·The compromise makes it less likely that old growth will be harvested in the future by mandating that older forest plans be revised to protect old growth before the agencies can use the new authorities created by this bill to reduce hazardous fuels in the forests.

·The compromise provides no new authority to log old growth, and avoids exempting any environmental law.

–The compromise also preserves all current opportunities for public input and appeal, while streamlining the appeals process and eliminating some of its worst abuses:

·The compromise will require the Forest Service to rewrite their appeals process using the pre-decisional appeals and comment process that has been used by the Bureau of Land Management since 1984.

It works by encouraging the public to engage in a collaborative process with the agency to improve projects before final decisions have been rendered upon them by the agency. This model places a premium on constructive public input and collaboration, and less emphasis on the litigation and confrontation of the post-decisional appeals process currently used by the Forest Service.

·Not one current opportunity for public comment would be lost under the compromise.

·The compromise is designed to move from the current model of confrontation, litigation and delay to one which places a premium on constructive, good faith public input.

Whereas in the past, parties could “sandbag” the appeals process by not raising salient points in hopes of later derailing the entire proposed action in the courts, parties would not be allowed to litigate on issues they had failed to raise in the comment or appeal period, unless those issues arose after the close of the appeals process (as a result of the revised agency decision).

–The deal also restores balance to “healthy forests” legislation, a top priority of President Bush and the White House.

·The compromise rejects an attempt to create an un-level playing field for the Bush administration in the courtroom by eliminating a House provision that Wyden said gave “weight to a finding by the Secretary concerned in the administrative record of the agency action concerning the short-term and long-term effects of undertaking the agency action, unless the court finds that the finding was arbitrary and capricious.”

·The compromise rejects an attempt to rely primarily on commercial sales to finance restorative forestry by authorizing increased federal funding for these projects from $0 in the House to $760 million annually. That would mean a $340 million authorized increase over the currently appropriated level of $420 million for hazardous fuel reduction projects.

·The compromise adds a requirement that at least 50 percent of funds directed toward restorative projects be spent to safeguard communities which face the greatest risks from fire. H.R. 1904 included no requirement that funds would be dedicated to the wildland urban interface areas.

·The compromise rejects an attempt to eliminate opportunities for public input by modifying provisions which did not allow any real NEPA analysis of projects, thereby curtailing public input. The House required analysis on the no-action alternative and the proposed alternative only; the Senate version requires one additional alternative to be analyzed under NEPA when called for by the public. This approach provides a real incentive for good faith public involvement in designing hazardous fuel reduction projects.

The wildfire legislation agreement was reached among U.S. Senators Thad Cochran (R-MS), Wyden, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Larry Craig (R-ID), John McCain (R-AZ), Max Baucus (D-MT), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Mike Crapo (R-ID).

Deschutes County commissioners entered the forest-health fray shortly before President Bush’s Aug. 21 visit to Central Oregon, touting the House-passed “Healthy Forests Initiative” sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden. The commissioners pressed for action by Congress this year, to ease the threat catastrophic wildfire, so they were happy to hear of the compromise.

“This is fantastic news,” said Commissioner Tom DeWolf. “If this does, in fact, go to conference committee, and they can hammer out an agreement that’s signed by the president, that’s the goal.”

“There are only two things going on here,” he said. “One is, they really want to make this work. The second is, they are wanting to create election-year fodder. Seeing this kind of work lets us know that what they are really interested in is a bill.”

“There’s always something in these bills that people from both sides don’t like,” DeWolf said. “But if you can swallow a little bit and compromise, we’re good to go. Let’s get some work done.”