By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
After sailing through the House of Representatives, the Healthy Forests Initiative is now having a tougher time in the Senate. Feinstein has introduced a rival bill that environmentalists have endorsed. Senators Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) have also introduced a competing piece of legislation. After last week’s press conference, McCain predicted that a compromise could clear Congress this month — if this year’s fire season is as bad as last year’s.
Observers say that much of the damage may already have been done. The real macher in the conflagration over forest fires is Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary. Shortly after he was appointed, the former timber-industry lobbyist told senior staffers that the Sicilian aphorism “Revenge is a dish best served cold” was part of his personal genome, according to an article in the Seattle Times. Indeed, Rey seems to be wreaking revenge on environmentalists who dogged his steps when he was a lobbyist.
After the GAO found that environmentalist opposition had virtually no effect on fire-prevention activities, Rey’s staff issued internal reports that contradicted the GAO study. At one point, a staffer “fact-checking” a Forest Service report claimed that 68 percent of thinning projects had been appealed. When environmentalists employed the Freedom of Information Act to see how the Forest Service compiled its data, they were told the research was done in a few hours and mostly by phone.
If Rey has his way, the Bush years may be 1980s retro all over again, with stepped-up timber cutting and lots of lawsuits. Observers like political scientist Jacqueline Vaughn believe that the real target for Rey and like-minded members of the administration is the National Environmental Policy Act, whose provisions ensuring citizen participation — and government accountability — would be truncated by the proposed Healthy Forests legislation.
The ironic part is that the policies pushed by Rey and others are unlikely to solve the problems in the forests. Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society said that most at-risk communities are surrounded by a patchwork of private and state land, which would not be affected by “fire reduction” timber sales on federal land. This is especially true for mountain towns in California like Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear and Idyllwild, which are all on the Forest Service’s fire-watch A-list. Many environmentalists admit that communities like Summerhaven, Big Bear and Idyllwild probably shouldn’t be in fire-prone areas in the first place. Yet the environmental community is fairly united in its support for concentrating fire-prevention efforts around communities rather than in the backcountry, where fire prevention is often an excuse for logging big trees. For one thing, environmentalists argue that studies have shown that fire prevention in what is called the “wildland/urban interface” actually works. Thinning remote backcountry areas is still an inexact science and should probably be done in smaller increments and monitored carefully, according to Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited. One of the savviest observers of the forest-fire scene, Wood got to know the Forest Service from the inside as a senior policy and communications adviser to Mike Dombeck, the Clinton appointee credited with reforming the problem-plagued Forest Service.
Wood agreed that the Forest Service runs the risk of re-igniting its historic emphasis on timber at the expense of conservation. For decades, the Forest Service allowed timber companies to cut between 9 billion and 12 billion board feet of timber a year, until lawsuits forced the count down to about 2 billion board feet. These days, Wood estimates that three-quarters of logging in the national forests is being done under the rubric of fire prevention.
If the bill passes Congress without substantial changes, timber sales cloaked as fire prevention will be virtually unstoppable because of provisions aimed at giving the Forest Service power to micromanage judicial decisions, Wood said. “I’m not a screaming environmentalist. But politics has totally intercepted the debate. Now the question seems to be ‘How quickly can we cut out the greatest number of people and eliminate environmental analysis and roll on with logging projects?’ It’s mind-bending that Congress is seriously considering this.”
Perhaps Congress needs to listen to the people in the Forest Service itself. McCain violated the Beltway code of deniability when pressed to defend his statistics at a press conference. “I got it from myself and, uh, the Forest Service,” McCain snapped when this reporter questioned him. “The Forest Service will confirm the fact that 40 to 60 percent of its budget is devoted to working on the environmental issues.” McCain called on John McGee, the supervisor of the Coronado National Forest, to back him up.
McGee, appearing a bit embarrassed, stepped up to the podium. The forest supervisor said that the existing setup could stand some streamlining but allowed for effective give and take between citizens and government. It is, McGee said, “a good process that resulted in good decisions.”
McCain is admired in Arizona, even among people who disagree with his conservative politics. Nobody had the heart to take the hero of campaign-finance reform to task for helping pork-barrel politics run wild in the national forests.