Democrats Introduce Forest Thinning Legislation
WASHINGTON, DC, June 25, 2003 (ENS) - Democratic Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico Tuesday introduced comprehensive legislation to protect communities from the threat of wildfire by expediting fuel reduction in high risk areas and targeting resources to the areas closest to communities.

"South Dakota and America need a comprehensive, common sense approach to managing our forests and protecting our communities and municipal watersheds," said Senator Daschle.

"The Collaborative Forest Health Act is just such an approach. It focuses on protecting communities, avoiding time consuming appeals and targeting the resources where they are needed most."

The new bill was introduced in answer to new rules announced by the Bush administration May 30 to expedite forest thinning projects in order to reduce the risk of wildfire on public lands. The rules reduce the federal government's responsibility for studying the environmental impact of forest thinning projects and limit the timing and scope of appeals to challenge these projects.

Under the Bush rule, which is open for public comment until July 30, the administration plans to relax the Forest Service's obligation under the Endangered Species Act to consult with federal agencies on the impacts to endangered wildlife from hazardous fuel reduction and ecosystem restoration projects.

Daschle's bill excludes hazardous fuel reduction projects in high risk fire areas from environmental review documentation and administrative appeals.

Daschle said the Democratic legislation is not meant to replace the need for locally negotiated agreements like the Black Hills Fire Prevention Agreement, but to create a common sense forest management framework that can be applied to all national forests. Locally negotiated agreements may still be necessary to solve local forest problems.

The Democrats' bill also makes protecting communities the top priority by directing 70 percent of the funds for hazardous fuel reduction to projects within one-half mile of communities and municipal watersheds.

"In the most high risk areas, the Forest Service needs to be able to manage the forest without delay," said Daschle. "We need to do everything we can to protect the homes and businesses in communities near the forests, and my legislation ensures that this is the top priority of fire prevention initiatives."

The legislation would provide $100 million annually in grants to reduce wildfire risk and restore burned areas on state, tribal, and private lands. Daschle said forest fires often do not originate on national forests and public lands, and it is important for state and local governments to have the resources necessary to prevent the spread of wildfire that begins on land under their jurisdiction.

South Dakota is infested by pine beetles, and the legislation also creates a $25 million insect infestation research program with universities to look into this epidemic and help determine the best ways to prevent it in the future.

The bill promotes fire management initiatives that maintain the integrity and beauty of the forest. It calls for thinning practices that avoid removing old and large trees, protect municipal watersheds and prevent new road construction in roadless areas.

"In South Dakota, we are fully aware that areas like the Black Hills are truly a national treasure that must be maintained for future generations to enjoy," Daschle said. "That means taking a balanced approach to forest management that expedites forest thinning and improves forest health."

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