Bad policy combined with unusually dense, diseased and insect-infested forests allowed California's recent wildfires to char three-quarters of a million acres.
And perhaps for the last time, as congressional negotiators are replacing bad forest policy with active and proper management by supporting the President's Healthy Forest Initiative.
Fires Growing Deadlier
In 2000, the United States suffered its worst wildfires in 50 years.
In 2002, wildfires burned more than 7 million acres of public and private lands, caused the deaths of 23 firefighters, destroyed thousands of structures, and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.
Late last Friday, the House passed H.R. 1904, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 286-140. The Senate, despite repeated delays, supported the bill unanimously by voice vote. President Bush can now sign this long overdue bill into law.
Details of the Bill
Fortunately, unlike the pork-laden energy bill, the conferees agreed to a "clean" sensible bill. Conferees stripped unnecessary and costly provisions contained in the Senate version of H.R. 1904, including:
A new public works plan,
A controversial invasive species section that should be in separate legislation, and
A federal override of state's rights for animal control regulations.
Following the House's principled lead, the bill now consists of a balanced common-sense approach that will make it easier for forest mangers to responsibly "thin" forests, perform "prescribed burns," and treat forests against insect and disease infestation.
Of particular significance, the bill streamlines the administrative appeals process and court challenges to fire-prevention strategies. Other provisions include:
Requiring that courts weigh the environmental consequences of management inaction when catastrophic wildfire are imminent,
Expediting analysis and reviews for priority wildfire mitigation projects focused on (or directed toward) protecting communities,
Clarifying requirements related to the retention of certain large trees to ensure that the bill's wildfire mitigation purposes were not trumped by these new standards, and
Ensuring that the public has a full and thorough opportunity to participate in the decision making process.
Saving Our Forests
This "Healthy Forests" legislation is the first step in paving the way to saving our forests and preventing destructive forest fires that have killed and endangered many lives and destroyed wildlife and hundreds of thousands of acres of property and wilderness. In the aftermath of the devastating forest fires that plagued California and other states this year and in previous years, Congress answered back in a bi-partisan manner. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 proves that Congress can produce "clean" legislation without attaching costly taxpayer "goodies".