McInnis forest bill gets House OK | AspenTimes.com

McInnis forest bill gets House OK

The passage of a bill by Rep. Scott McInnis that would speed logging projects to reduce wildfire threats was praised by President Bush and vilified by environmentalists yesterday.

McInnis’ Healthy Forest Restoration Act cruised to easy approval in the U.S. House by a 256 to 170 vote. It now goes to the Senate, where Rep. Mark Udall said he expects it to face a tougher time.

McInnis, a Republican from Grand Junction, introduced the bill on May 1 as a way to try to start reducing wildfire threats on public lands this summer. The bill would make funds available for projects where forests adjoin heavily populated areas and their watersheds. It would also target parts of forests threatened by insects and disease.

The bill would also streamline the process the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management undertake to allow such projects. It would simplify the review and limit administrative appeals.

McInnis claimed the agencies were suffering from “analysis paralysis” that prevented timely approval of logging projects that would reduce naturally hazardous fuels.

But conservationists and some House Democrats claimed the bill wouldn’t adequately protect communities most in need. McInnis’ bill lacks provisions that require specific amounts of funds to be spent in the red zones, where wildfires present the biggest threat to towns like those in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Conservationists claimed the bill helps the logging industry earn easier approval for projects deep in the heart of the forests that have nothing to do with reducing wildfire risks.

Critics also said the bill strips away too many important tools available to the public under the National Environmental Protection Act. That requires the Forest Service and other federal agencies to undertake Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments – studies designed to assess the impacts of projects on public lands and to consider alternatives.

Speaking on the House floor yesterday, McInnis urged his colleagues to ignore opposition from “radical” environmental groups.

Vera Smith, spokeswoman for the Colorado Mountain Club, part of a coalition of Colorado environmental groups lobbying for defeat of the McInnis bill, claimed McInnis failed his constituents with his bill. She noted that 13 letters representing 32 elected officials from Colorado towns in the mountains and West Slope urged McInnis to alter the bill to make more funds available for their protection. The city of Glenwood Springs, town of Basalt and Pitkin County were among the governments that sought changes to McInnis’ bill.

“Our communities spoke out and said they needed help,” Smith said. “This doesn’t give it to them.”

Rep. Mark Udall voted against the bill although he supports the concept that more must be done to reduce wildfire risks in Colorado. He supported a different bill that McInnis introduced last year because it earmarked funds specifically for red zones around communities but it didn’t strip public input or appeals from the process.

“I fear that adding new issues and new controversies will only complicate matters and slow down our efforts to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire danger to our communities and their water supplies,” Udall said in a prepared statement.

A controversial redistricting by Colorado Republicans earlier this month removed Pitkin County from the 3rd Congressional District, represented by McInnis, and placed it in the 2nd District, represented by Udall, a Democrat from Boulder.

Smith said conservation groups aren’t close to giving up the fight on the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. They are lobbying for more complete debate on the measure in the Senate. And they will hammer home the point that it was opposed by some people in places like Glenwood Springs, Basalt and Pitkin County, she said.

A Senate vote isn’t expected for a month, although President Bush is pressing for the bill’s approval.

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


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