Western Republicans proposed legislation Thursday that would exempt some logging in national forests from environmental rules to help reduce fire risk and allow recovery of dead wood before it rots.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, introduced the bill, which would relax laws protecting fish, wildlife and water quality in areas where fire threat is greatest.
“We don’t need to watch our natural resources go up in smoke when there is a critical need for wood fiber to sustain our industry and communities,” Craig said.
Environmentalists oppose provisions of the bill that would eliminate, in areas of serious fire danger, the right of citizens to challenge logging with administrative appeals.
They also object to a provision that would exempt smaller salvage logging operations, those handling up to 1 million board feet, from standard review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“They want to commence extensive logging operations under the guise of forest health,” said Dr. John Osborn, head of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council in Spokane, Wash. “It is basically retired school teachers and hunters and fishermen who have filed these appeals to try to stop the breaking of laws that are intended to protect the environment,” Osborn said.
Sens. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., and Slade Gorton, R-Wash., are among backers of the proposal.
“There are hundreds of thousands of acres of trees which are dead or dying in eastern Oregon, and southern and central Oregon are not far behind,” Packwood said.
Gorton said the federal government is “so petrified by the potential filing of lawsuits that it will not undertake even the most limited of actions in our nation’s forests to prevent these fires from happening again.”
“We cannot, and should not, stop managing our forests because of the obstructionist tactics of a few groups and individuals,” Gorton said.
Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he plans further study of some of the bill’s more controversial measures. But he said the measure “provides a valuable framework for addressing these critical issues.”
“In the long run, the public should benefit by management activities taken as a result of this bill,” said Daschle, who held forest-health hearings with Craig over the past year.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Thursday she would reserve judgment on the proposal.
“Senator Craig correctly points out the problem and the need to do something, but like so many things on the Republican agenda, we need to be very careful about going too far,” Murray said.
The threat of fire makes swift action necessary, Craig said in a Senate floor speech.
“Our window of opportunity is very narrow,” he said.