Democratic News

"It's clear that we urgently need to address the state of our national forests. Last year's fire season in the West was the most devastating in recent memory and we need to take steps now that prevent a repeat. Before we adjourned for the year, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate were working hard to find solutions to the problem. Given that, I am both surprised and disappointed that the administration announced this new policy without consulting with those of us who have given a lot of careful thought to this issue. "Generally, I favor providing additional flexibility to allow forest thinning on an expedited basis, especially in high-risk areas. Unfortunately, the administration's proposal is not detailed enough for me to determine whether it goes too far or whether it contains adequate safeguards. I am disappointed that the proposal does not require that a majority of forest-thinning funds be spent where they are needed most: near communities and to protect watersheds that communities rely upon. "It is also regrettable that the administration failed to crack down on the Forest Service for its practice of using forest-thinning funding to fight fires, and refusing to replenish the forest-thinning account even after Congress has given it the funding to do so. If we are truly going to reduce the threat of wildfire, the Forest Service must place proper emphasis on ridding our national forests of the small-diameter trees and underbrush that pose the greatest threat. That will not happen as long as the agency refuses to give forest-thinning the attention -- and funding -- it deserves." Before Congress adjourned this fall, Bingaman has proposed an amendment to the FY 2003 Interior Appropriations Bill that would have doubled to 5 million from 2.5 million the number of acres of forest lands that would be thinned by federal management agencies next year. Bingaman's plan also would have: * Required that 70 percent of forest thinning funds be spent on forest lands that abut communities or watersheds. * Exempted from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis all forest thinning projects up to 250,000 board feet. (This would be in effect for one year.) * Eliminated judicial review granted under NEPA for thinning projects within ½-mile of any community or certain watersheds. (This would be in effect for one year.) * Allowed no administrative appeals, saving 135 days in the process. (This would be in effect for one year.) Bingaman's plan would have expired at the end of FY 2003, but during that time, he had hoped that if permanent changes to forest policy were needed, they would have been made through the proper route: through an authorizing bill that would have come from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. # # #