Bush Announces Strategy for Forest Fires; Firefighter Safety, Timberland, Environment among issues.(NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: Audrey Hudson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration yesterday announced a plan to remove hazardous timber and restore forest health on federal lands under extreme risk of catastrophic wildfires.

The proposed regulations for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management follow environmental rules established by the Clinton administration for a separate agency - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - and could affect more than 100 million acres.

No new roads would be built. Activities would include timber removal and prescribed fires, but would be excluded in wilderness areas and forests where endangered species are established. Herbicides and pesticides would not be used.

"This summer's fire season was a wake-up call to everyone who loves our public lands and wants to protect communities at risk," said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "We face a crisis of forest and rangeland health of unprecedented proportions, where millions of acres of land desperately need more effective management to promote ecosystem restoration."

"These common-sense steps will allow federal agencies to spend millions of dollars a year on environmental restoration and conservation rather than needless paperwork. The result will be safer communities, safer firefighters and healthier forest ecosystems," Mr. Connaughton said.

The plan establishes "categorical exclusions" to cut red tape and limit the appeals process to clear dead and dying timber, or fuels, that officials say spread bug infestation and spark wildfires.

Timber projects would still be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, but biologists also would have to look at the environmental and economic consequences of not logging. The proposed changes are subject to a 50-day public comment period before they can win approval through the regulatory process.

Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, called the announcement "the latest ax to fall on environmental protections and public participation."

"Obviously President Bush has interpreted the recent elections as a mandate to pollute, cut and drill," Mr. Miller said.

The announcement drew praise from Western lawmakers, who say past policies have led to frivolous lawsuits and hobbled federal agencies. …