McInnis’ controversial bill on forests heads to Senate |

McInnis’ controversial bill on forests heads to Senate

A controversial bill by Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis that would make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to approve logging projects is heading to the Senate for debate today.

McInnis’ Healthy Forest Restoration Act passed in the U.S. House 256-170 earlier this year. At the time of the House approval, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, whose district includes Pitkin and Eagle counties, predicted it would face a tougher time in the Senate. Environmental groups agree with that assessment.

“I think it’s a very close issue right now in the Senate,” said Michael Francis, director of national forests programs for the Wilderness Society, one of the nation’s most powerful environmental organizations. “Mr. McInnis’ bill is controversial legislation.”

The bill would streamline the review process for logging projects by limiting the amount of study the Forest Service would have to conduct. In addition, it would limit the administrative appeals process and place forest issues ahead of any other lawsuits in federal court systems. Judges would be prohibited from issuing preliminary junctions on logging projects for more than 45 days, and final rulings on lawsuits would be required within 100 days.

McInnis wants the streamlined process so logging projects and timber management could be approved this summer in “red zones,” the areas where wooded public lands abut populated areas. The idea is to thin forests in those areas so that wildfires wouldn’t pose such a huge risk to homes.

The act would also provide an easier path for approval of logging projects that would treat parts of forests infested with beetles or in danger of spreading beetles.

“In the wake of two disastrous seasons in 2000 and 2002, and another destructive season now under way, it would be a shameful outrage if this Congress did not act to protect our forests and our communities from this very real and very dangerous threat,” McInnis said in a prepared statement.

Environmental groups counter that the act is using the wildfire threat as an excuse to help the logging industry into national forests. They claim that the McInnis bill doesn’t earmark enough funds for the red zones, where it is really needed.

“There is virtually no funding for fuel reduction on non-federal lands, but the bill would fund logging projects miles from communities under the guise of `fuel reduction,'” said a statement issued during the House debate by an environmental coalition.

Udall voted against the bill because, in part, it fails to earmark a certain amount of funds for red zones. He said he believes Congress does need to act to reduce the wildfire threat in national forests.

The Wilderness Society’s Francis said the Senate is poised to consider a number of options to McInnis’ bill. Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, is said to be contemplating introducing his own legislation this week, according to Francis. Another bill has already been co-introduced by Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Francis said he hadn’t had time yet to review that bill to examine differences with McInnis’ proposal.

Domenici, a high-ranking Republican, is chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will consider the bills on wildfire reduction in national forests. That appears to give his bill an edge.

Francis said it isn’t uncommon to see a variety of bills on an important topic when consensus on a particular bill is unlikely.

No bill is expected to reach debate on the Senate floor until after the July 4th recess. However, there may be added pressure to pass legislation due to a wildfire in Arizona that has destroyed 345 buildings and charred 26,700 acres. There are numerous smaller blazes in Arizona and New Mexico.

Francis said those fires may be used by some people to try to rush legislation even without full debate. “It wouldn’t surprise me if that type of exploitation occurs,” he said.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is]

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