- October 31 - The U.S. Senate last night ignored real solutions for Western communities by passing a bill that does next to nothing to protect homes and communities from wildfires. In a 80-14 vote, the Senate approved a deal brokered by Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, former timber industry lobbyist, that closely mirrors the Bush Administration's so-called "Healthy Forests Initiative." The result is wildfire policy that effectively removes citizen participation, interferes with the judicial system, increases commercial logging, leaves old-growth and roadless forests vulnerable, all while leaving communities at risk.
"We are disappointed that the Senate bowed to pressure from the Bush Administration today and failed to provide real solutions for communities," said Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director. "The Bush White House and the Senate have concocted a proposal that would provide more help to timber companies than to fire-threatened and cash-starved communities. There is a better way, but it requires putting the safety of communities ahead of the interests of timber companies."
The backroom deal is still subject to changes in conference committee where it could take on more provisions favored by the timber industry. The Bush plan stands in sharp contrast to a proposal by conservation groups that would focus aid on communities at risk from wildfire. The Sierra Club and other conservation groups embrace the Community Protection Plan, emphasizing fuel reduction projects and "firewise" protections along the boundaries of communities adjacent to forest lands. The Bush administration and their allies in the Congress used the wildfires in Southern California as an excuse to pass their poorly-designed bill.
"The Sierra Club expresses deep concern and sympathy for the families who have lost loved ones and who have been put in harms way by the recent fires in Southern California and to the firefighters courageously working to protect homes and lives," said Pope. "We have the knowledge to help reduce the wildfire risk to lives and homes, and the Forest Service should make protecting these communities its top priority. Looking at the substance of the bill, the Bush Administration's promises to protect communities ring hollow."
The current fires in California are a clear example of the importance of prioritizing the prevention efforts near where people live. Along with the Malibu fires of a decade ago and other more recent fires, there is no shortage of evidence indicating the essential role that clearing brush near communities plays in protecting homes and lives. In these areas, the risk of wildfires always exists, and there are steps we can take to help protect homes and lives. The Forest Service's own fire scientists found that the best way to protect communities from fire is to thin brush and small trees within 500 yards of where people live. But that's not where the bulk of attention is from the Bush administration and Congress. Instead, they focus on thinning in the backcountry and across the landscape.
"We're never going to fireproof the whole landscape, but we can try to protect the people who live there. This bill does not move us far enough in that direction," said Pope. "Communities in Southern California and across the West are not getting the help they desperately need. If the Bush Administration and Congress are serious about protecting homes and lives, they should appropriate sufficient funds and earmark them for work around communities."
Over the past year, hundreds of nationally- and locally-elected officials, scientists, and homeowners from across the country have spoken out against the Bush plan. In some of the areas in Southern California, local residents and local government officials have been asking for financial assistance yet have never received enough to protect their communities adequately. California's 17 national forests have to split a mere $46 million in annual fuel-reduction funds -- a fraction of what is needed.
"Today the Senate failed to give Americans what they deserve: a sound vision for forest management that protects homes and communities, responsibly uses federal resources, and maintains important environmental safeguards," said Pope. "We're left with a bill that doesn't protect old-growth forests, limits public participation and judicial review, and leaves communities vulnerable."
In waging a public relations offensive to pass the controversial bill, the timber industry, Bush Administration and congressional allies relied heavily on claims that citizen participation and judicial review hamstring fuel reduction projects. Yet another GAO report issued on October 24 provided no evidence to support contentions by the Bush Administration and Congressional allies that fuel reduction efforts have been obstructed by conservationists. According to the report, the overwhelming majority of projects -- 95 percent -- go forward in a timely manner, even when questions are raised by citizens, industry, recreation groups, conservations or other interested parties. The latest GAO report found that 95 percent of the 818 fuel reduction projects reviewed by the GAO were ready for implementation within the standard 90-day review period (GAO-04-52).
The bill would do very little to help communities from the kind of fires we're seeing in Southern California. The legislation does not address fire prevention on non-federal lands, which is where most of these fires are burning. In addition, the landscape in Southern California is primarily covered by chaparral and other types of brush and grass while the President's proposal and the Senate bill focus on areas with valuable timber.