Bills would push more national forest thinning

AP News
Posted: Dec 09, 2009 8:02 AM

Bills to open more of the backcountry in national forests to fire-prevention thinning projects and to promote woodburning heating systems in public buildings have been introduced in the U.S. House.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden said Tuesday the bill to expand thinning projects faces an uphill battle in the House Committee on Natural Resources, even with bipartisan support. But the Oregon Republican said the huge backlog in the backcountry on national forests needs to be addressed.

"What we are trying to do is provide the kinds of tools to the (U.S.) Forest Service that, frankly, every other forester has today, whether it is on state land, county land or certainly private land, so they can practice good stewardship more effectively on the federal forests," Walden said from Washington, D.C.

The bill would amend the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which never fulfilled its promise of jump-starting thinning projects on federal lands and around communities, to expand the areas where the Forest Service could use a streamlined environmental review process.

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., meanwhile, introduced a bill to offer $100 million in interest-free loans to install wood-burning heating systems in schools, hospitals, universities and government and tribal offices.

Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a conservation group, said the thinning bill contained a "Trojan Horse" designed to allow more commercial logging in the name of reducing fire danger on national forests.

By inserting the words "Necessary connected action" into a section of the original bill, the amendment would open the door to streamlined environmental reviews of timber sales connected to thinning projects, Stahl said.

"The only way hazardous fuel reduction projects pay their way out the woods is if you sell commercial timber with them," Stahl said. "So it's necessary to have a commercial timber sale to reduce hazardous fuels.

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"But a commercial timber sale under the current law doesn't fit the Healthy Forests Restoration Act criteria. This amendment would do so."

The bills drew support from Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. He said they would make it more certain where the Forest Service can conduct large thinning projects without having to go through major environmental reviews, and help build a market for thinning materials that currently have little value.

Co-sponsors were Reps. Brian Baird, D-Wash.; Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; Schrader, and Stephanie Herseth Sundlin, D-S.D.