Byline: The Register-Guard
Nearly a year and a half after announcing his Healthy Forests Initiative on a much-ballyhooed visit to a forest fire in Oregon, President Bush has signed compromise legislation intended to help prevent wildfires from ravaging Western states, as they have with such horrifying regularity and intensity in recent years.
Now, the Bush administration has an opportunity to disprove its many critics who insist that the new law is not intended to control wildfires and improve forest health, but to let the timber industry run rampant in our national forests.
The Healthy Forests Restoration Act, signed into law by Bush on Wednesday, reflects the basic goals of the president's original initiative. It streamlines the approval process for projects to remove fire-prone materials such as brush and small trees from forests that have become incendiary time bombs after more than a century of fire suppression and years of drought.
But the new law contains vital changes and safeguards forged by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden. Those changes include requirements that federal agencies spend half of the new program's funding on clearing forest areas closest to communities and that forests identified as old growth be protected from logging. While the legislation allows truncated environmental reviews of thinning projects, it preserves some key aspects of the public appeal process.
By far, the most critical change concerns resources. The compromise measure authorizes $760 million a year for thinning, while the administration's original proposal specified no funding. Without federal dollars, the thinning projects would have had to pay for themselves, and the invariable result would have been extensive commercial logging of large - and, ironically, the most fire-resistant - trees in order to cover the costs of contractors.
Now, the administration - and its supporters in Congress - must follow through by actually appropriating the full amount of money that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service will need to properly reduce fire hazards. …