McInnis forest bill advances in Senate |

McInnis forest bill advances in Senate

A proposal to make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to approve forest thinning projects was passed by a Senate committee Thursday and appears headed for final debate in September.

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed a bill called the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act” unanimously by a voice vote. The bill was co-sponsored by Congressman Scott McInnis, R-Glenwood Springs, and approved by the House in May by a vote of 256-170.

The bill has been controversial and “there is expected to be considerable debate” when it hits the full floor in the Senate, according to a spokesman for the agriculture committee.

Environmental groups have criticized the bill for giving the Forest Service too much discretion to approve projects that would reduce hazardous fuels where forested public lands abut populated areas. The federal agency could also speed approval of projects designed to stop the spread of beetle infestations.

The Forest Service wouldn’t have to study as many alternatives as is now required under the National Environmental Protection Act. McInnis’ bill would also make it more difficult for members of the public to appeal Forest Service approval of logging projects. Limitations on lawsuits would also be set.

Environmentalists also charge that the bill fails to designate enough dollars for forest thinning in the areas known as red zones, where towns face the greatest threat from wildfires.

But McInnis’ bill has bipartisan support from legislators who believe it is a step in the right direction to increase the health of forests and reduce the threat of fire and disease. Supporters say there’s got to be a better way to deal with wildfires than waiting to fight them once they start. The federal government spent $1.6 billion in combating the blazes in 2002.

The Senate agriculture committee’s Web site said legislation is needed after wildland fires burned 7.1 million acres last year, and beetle infestations affected trees on 14.2 million acres.

Of the 190 million acres identified by federal land managers as being at unnaturally high risk to wildfire, the bill stipulates that the proposed expedited procedures could be used to treat hazardous conditions on 20 million acres.

McInnis, in a statement released Thursday, urged the Senate to “move with urgency” on the bill.

“The intensity of the 2002 wildfire season proved to us of what kind of danger we are in if we don’t work to defend ourselves from these infernos,” McInnis said.

“To get control of this situation, we must take the power out of Washington and put it back into the hands of our land managers on the ground. They are the true experts in this battle, and we must not delay in providing them with the tools to reduce this very real and dangerous threat.”

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is]

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