Udall leads opposition to McInnis’ forest bill | AspenTimes.com

Udall leads opposition to McInnis’ forest bill

Aspen’s new congressman is leading the charge to amend or defeat a bill proposed by Aspen’s old congressman to allow more logging of national forests to reduce risks of wildfire.

U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat from Boulder, said he cannot support the “Healthy Forest Restoration Act” introduced by Rep. Scott McInnis, a Grand Junction Republican.

McInnis was the representative of Aspen and all of Pitkin County until last week, when the Republican-controlled Colorado Legislature redrew boundaries of congressional districts. Pitkin County was taken out of the 3rd District, which McInnis represents, and placed in the 2nd district, which Udall represents.

The redistricting, which has much broader implications, was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Democrats (a related story is on page 5). For now, Udall is Aspen’s congressman.

Udall said he supported a similar bill proposed by McInnis last year, but this year’s version has too drastic of changes to earn his vote. “I’m a little disappointed because we were close last year,” Udall said. Last year’s bill died without a vote.

This year, McInnis introduced the bill earlier and enlisted more bipartisan sponsorship in an effort to earn approval. He touts the bill as a way to fund thinning of hazardous fuels where forests and heavily populated areas interlock.

The bill would affect lands in the Roaring Fork Valley, where the White River National Forest surrounds many of the towns. The Coal Seam fire in Glenwood Springs last year spread from South Canyon to forest lands before sweeping through developed areas of West Glenwood Springs. The fire destroyed 28 homes and damaged other property.

While the idea of thinning and reducing hazardous fuels is widely supported, McInnis’ bill is controversial because it would limit the amount of review the Forest Service must undertake on logging projects and limit the appeals that citizens could file to block a logging project.

Conservationists contend that limiting the feds’ review requirements is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The act requires that several alternatives be considered for projects proposed on federal lands.

Udall agreed that the McInnis bill is “over-reaching.” He tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill when it was considered by the House Resources and Agriculture committees, both of which he sits on.

Udall said the bill doesn’t devote enough effort to thinning and reducing hazardous fuels in areas where it is needed, the so-called “red zones” where wild lands abut communities.

He said the bill also “unnecessarily guts” important environmental laws and could result in more lawsuits that just delay efforts to reduce the risks of wildfires.

Udall sought passage of an amendment that would require that 70 percent of fuel-reduction money be spent in the red zones. That was part of the McInnis bill last year, but it was dropped this year.

Udall said that omission erodes trust that the McInnis bill is about wildfire risks and not purely logging.

Udall also believes that reviews necessary under NEPA should apply and that the logging projects that he feels are necessary would “withstand scrutiny.”

He also opposes removing the appeal option. “It’s very important that streamlining the appeals process doesn’t mean making appeals pointless,” Udall recently said in comments before the Resources Committee.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act was advanced by the House Resources and Agriculture committees and was scheduled for a vote by the full House this week. However, that vote was delayed to allow review by the Judiciary Committee due to the proposed changes in NEPA.

National environmental organizations are on the offensive against the bill. They sent e-mails to members urging them to lobby Judiciary Committee members to vote against the bill.

Udall said the bill has a chance of winning approval in the House but probably faces a tougher time in the Senate.

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

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