In actions that would change federal environmental policy, the House voted Thursday to allow massive unregulated logging in national forests while the Senate approved a measure that would bar temporarily the listing of any new endangered species.
In addition, the House voted to reduce by about $2 billion the combined operating budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy.
In its most far-reaching action of the day, the House voted to suspend most environmental regulations governing national forests to permit a dramatic acceleration of salvage logging over the next couple of years. Salvage logging targets dead and dying trees but can extend to substantial harvesting of nearby live trees.
Supporters characterized the legislation as a forest health bill. They argued that dead wood creates high fire danger in many forests, especially in the West, justifying the suspension of normal environmental oversight and the doubling of salvage logging nationwide to more than 6 billion board feet of timber. Environmentalists and officials of the U.S. Forest Service disagreed, contending that the bill - which has yet to be considered by the Senate - would harm forest health more than help it by allowing overcutting in environmentally sensitive areas.
“We agree there is clearly need for forest health,” said James Lyons, an assistant secretary of Agriculture who oversees the U.S. Forest Service. “But in our view, this (bill) is not necessary to achieve forest health objectives. In fact, it may have just the opposite effect.”
The timber amendment was attached to a broader bill aimed at reducing the federal deficit by cutting funding for the current fiscal year.
Hours after the House approved the timber measure, Senate Republicans took action on another environmental front, winning passage of an amendment to an emergency defense spending bill that would freeze new listings of endangered species for the next six months.
Sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the amendment follows House passage of a two-year moratorium on new listings. Both houses of Congress must pass identical versions of legislation before it can be sent to the White House for signing into law by the president.
Together, the two measures represent the Republicans’ opening salvo at one of the most bitterly contested pieces of environmental legislation ever passed - the Endangered Species Act.
Officials of the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for administering the act, said that Hutchison’s amendment amounts to a sneak attack on a valuable law.
“It’s another attempt to dismantle 25 years of environmental progress without the knowledge of the American people,” said Lisa Guide, a department spokeswoman.
Guide said the freeze would put off listing decisions for “a few dozen species,” including the American jaguar and the pygmy owl. And it could affect a pending decision on whether to list the Pacific coho salmon.
The salmon are believed to be at risk of extinction, and the federal government was expected to propose the fish for protection as an endangered species next month.