Through the woods

December 01, 2003

TREE-HUGGERS can be excused for wariness toward President Bush. His environmental record reveals he's no slave to resource protection, and his fondness for the great outdoors is not reflected in his budget priorities.

Yet that distrust shouldn't tarnish the valuable and genuinely bipartisan compromise Congress hammered out before overwhelmingly approving its rewrite of Mr. Bush's proposal to protect national forests from wildfires.

It was a bargain many years in the making, designed to speed the thinning of underbrush and diseased trees to prevent infernos like the one that roared through more than 700,000 acres in California this fall, killing 24 people and destroying 3,600 homes. Mr. Bush's job will be to implement the legislation quickly and provide the $760 million in annual funding Congress authorized for the task.

Perhaps because they almost literally had a fire lighted under them, lawmakers who brokered the deal displayed a model of how the legislative process should work.

Mr. Bush and his Republican allies wanted to cut the red tape of the environmental review process they say imposes harmful delays on thinning projects, some of which might have forestalled a series of devastating wildfires across the West in recent years.

Democrats wanted to protect the right of citizens to intervene, to focus thinning projects on wooded areas where fire would most immediately threaten residential areas and to prevent commercial loggers from using fire prevention as an excuse to clear old-growth forests.

The compromise, fittingly, pretty much split the difference on these points. Environmental and citizen reviews will be streamlined, but not eliminated; half the money is to be spent near communities particularly at risk, and for the first time in federal statute, old growth trees are specifically protected -- though some loopholes remain.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who played a critical role in shaping the first major forest legislation enacted in 27 years, said the effort proves "we can create rural jobs, protect our communities, and take action to restore the health of our forests at the same time."

Many environmentalists are skeptical, fearing valuable, healthy, fire-resistant trees will end up in timber mills needlessly. They worry the administration will eagerly put streamlined rules for forest-thinning into effect, but drag its feet on providing funds for clearing material with no commercial value.

It will be up to President Bush, who plans to sign the bill Wednesday, to prove he can be a sensitive steward of our national woodlands. And, oh yeah, to show us the money.

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