Logging debate pits enviros against congressional ally | AspenTimes.com

Logging debate pits enviros against congressional ally

The debate over logging forests to improve fire safety has pitted Colorado conservationists against one of their staunchest allies as well as a traditional nemesis in Congress.

A coalition of environmental groups is reeling over a decision last week by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, to support a logging bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction. That coalition includes Aspen Wilderness Workshop and the Glenwood Springs-based regional chapter of the Sierra Club.

“We were disappointed and baffled by his vote,” Ted Zukoski of the Land and Water Fund said of Udall’s position.

Udall is regarded as one of the friendliest members of Congress by environmentalists. He consistently earns high marks for his voting record on “green” issues by the League of Conservation Voters.

Udall could end up representing part of the Roaring Fork Valley if he wins re-election this fall. Due to redistricting, his district will incorporate Eagle County, including the El Jebel area and part of Basalt.

McInnis, whose district includes Garfield and Pitkin counties, introduced legislation Sept. 4 that he claims will allow the Forest Service to act more swiftly to thin timber that presents a wildfire hazard in areas adjacent to towns and populated areas.

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The issues could dictate logging practices in the White River National Forest that surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley.

“We have a broken management system that must be fixed if we are to prevent similar fire seasons, like 2002, from occurring again,” McInnis said in a prepared statement. “Inaction on this issue will only intensify the crisis our communities and forests are facing. The question now is, are we willing to solve this problem or are we going to watch our forests literally go up in smoke?”

The bill will replace the current Forest Service appeals process, which McInnis complained invites conflicts, moves slowly and discourages meaningful public participation during the early formulation of forest management projects. In its place will be a more collaborative review process prior to decision making.

The main difference in approaches is that thinning projects would move through a newly devised predecisional review process in a few months, instead of several years, as is often the case at present, according to McInnis.

Environmentalists blasted McInnis’ plan for “undercutting” the National Environmental Policy Act, known as the “Magna Carta of environmental law.” They claim it will eliminate the requirement that the Forest Service thoroughly look at alternatives to logging to reduce fuels.

They also claim that streamlining the process eliminates the public voice from the decision making.

At the core of the environmentalists’ complaint is a claim that McInnis’ plan makes it easier for logging to occur on 6 million acres of federal lands far removed from populated areas. They suspect McInnis is using the fire threat, in part, to clear the way for logging.

The bill was introduced after a record amount of national forest was charred in Colorado last summer. Catastrophic fires included the Coal Seam blaze that threatened West Glenwood Springs and the Panorama fire which threatened part of Missouri Heights.

McInnis, who is often at odds with environmental groups, is seeking bipartisan support for his bill. It survived an important test when the House Resources Committee voted 23-14 to approve it last week. To the surprise of Colorado conservationists, Udall was among those who approved it.

The bill he supported, said Zukoski, cuts the heart out of the NEPA process, one of the most important tools available to environmentalists.

But Doug Young, Udall’s district policy director, said the congressman felt progress has been made in drafting a fire safety bill that Udall feels is sorely needed and overdue.

“We think it’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “Mark Udall did vote for the final product because it is better than President Bush’s approach.”

Udall attempted to amend McInnis’ proposal. In one major departure, he proposed that the focus on the “urban interface” forest lands close to towns and populated areas be increased. Young said currently about 70 percent of the logging effort would be concentrated in the urban interface. Udall wants more attention to those areas.

Young said Udall is well aware that environmentalists don’t like the McInnis plan or Udall’s support for it.

“That causes problems among our environmental funds,” Young said. He wouldn’t speculate on whether that could hurt the congressman’s re-election bid.

Zukoski wouldn’t even discuss political implications. He said his organization and many in the Colorado conservation coalition are forbidden, as tax-exempt nonprofits, from endorsing candidates or taking stands on ballot issues.

Udall has been endorsed by two environmental groups that aren’t sworn to neutrality ? the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]