California Fires Send Chainsaws into Action
by Lisa Dix

As chaparral fires burned in southern California at the end of October, the Bush administration and members of Congress exploited the tragedy of homes burning down and lives lost to slam their logging agenda through the Senate.

Their rhetoric on the California fires was full of lies. They blamed the fires on environmental appeals and litigation, which they claimed had caused "analysis paralysis." They also implicated the Senate for not passing legislation that would "ease regulations" to "speed up thinning" on public lands. The corporate media fed public and political hysteria by showing dramatic footage of burning homes and calling for something to be done. Yet most coverage did not thoroughly investigate the legislation the Bush administration claimed was needed to "fix" the problem.

The facts are striking. The majority of the California fires started and burned not in forests on public land but in privately owned chaparral and grassland areas. Most of the fires resulted from arson. According to US Forest Service (USFS) documents, it was the lack of funding, improper prioritization of funds and extreme drought conditions that stalled fuels reduction work around homes and communities in southern California. In reality, no fuels reduction projects in southern California's national forests had been held up by environmental appeals or litigation in the past three years. Fuel reduction projects had only been the subject of one administrative appeal in the last six years.

The legislation that went before the Senate would have done little to protect communities from wildfire because it focused on remote public lands. In fact, commercial logging and associated road building, activities known to increase the risk and severity of fire, would increase dramatically under the legislation thanks to the new powers granted to the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In these harsh political times, the facts mattered little.

The Bush administration's grossly misnamed "Healthy Forests Initiative" (HFI) was announced in August 2002 during a press conference in which President Bush stood in front of a recently burned area in southern Oregon. With the help of Undersecretary of Agriculture and former timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey, the Bush administration decided that it would play on public fears surrounding fire to politically advance its logging agenda. The administration's national forest greenwashing story went something like this:

Fire is a destructive force, a "holocaust" on pubic forests. Environmental appeals and litigation have prohibited "active management" and have caused "overly dense forest stands," which now dominate forest landscapes across the US. These promote "catastrophic" wildfire, and they are time bombs waiting to explode. The way to make our forests healthy again is to "ease" and "expedite" environmental laws so that "thinning" can rapidly occur rather than having to waste time assessing environmental impacts or going to court.

HFI lacked any substantive measures to protect forests and make them "healthy." HFI reverses regulations that limit USFS and BLM discretion and eliminated requirements for the agencies to complete environmental impact analyses for logging and road-building projects. It gutted regulations protecting endangered and threatened species, waived environmental analyses for "hazardous fuels reduction" logging projects, eliminated many public comment, participation and appeal requirements, reversed species habitat and water quality protections designated by the Northwest Forest Plan and weakened roadless area protections.

In May, the House of Representatives passed the "Healthy Forests and Restoration Act of 2003" (HR.1904). This bill would have fully implemented Bush's HFI by granting the executive branch the power to undermine the very heart of the National Environmental Policy Act and permanently change the standards of judicial review to favor timber interests in the courts.

Upon passing the House and easily sailing out of the conservative Senate Agriculture Committee, HR.1904 was poised to move to the Senate floor. However, many Senators had serious concerns about the extreme provisions in the House bill and for many months there were not enough votes to overcome a filibuster.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) drafted their own bill as a Senate "compromise." The Wyden/Feinstein bill had little support in the Senate, and no support from the environmental community, because it went too far in rolling back environmental laws. However, despite promises not to compromise any further, Senators Wyden, Feinstein, Max Bacus (D-MT), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Tom Daschle (D-SD) engaged in back-door negotiations with a small group of republican Senators.

A very bad "deal" was cut on September 22. Daschle urged the Senate to act on the legislation, thereby handing the Bush administration one of its priority anti-environmental initiatives and a huge gift to the timber industry. Yet due to sustained public pressure, it appeared that the deal still would not get enough votes to break a filibuster in the Senate, and it remained stalled. In fact, it was highly likely that the deal would not have gained enough political support to pass the Senate--that is until southern California started burning.

On October 30, two days after the fires began in California, the deal passed the Senate. Wyden, Feinstein, Bacus, Lincoln and Daschle succeeded by twisting the arms of democrats to vote for the deal. They continued to tell their colleagues that environmental laws had to be compromised in exchange for old-growth protection.

The old-growth protection language contained so many loopholes that its protections would be meaningless. Moreover, Wyden, Feinstein and Daschle promised the democrats that they would hold the line in conference, ensuring that the deal would not be changed before it was signed by Bush. Several democrats offered amendments to improve the bill, but the deal-makers rejected these amendments because of their commitment to hold firm.

Predictably, Wyden and his cronies did not keep their word, and the bill did get worse in conference. The conference bill on HR.1904, was passed by both the House and Senate on November 21. The HR.1904 then headed to President Bush's desk, where it was signed into law on December 3.

The Bush logging law will have devastating impacts on national forests and BLM-administered lands. Historically speaking, this is the first major stand-alone forest management legislation that has passed Congress since the 1976 National Forest Management Act. The Bush logging law undermines bedrock environmental laws and changes the standards in which the federal judiciary reviews logging cases, tilting the balance to favor timber interests.

While more than 85 percent of the communities that need fire-work done directly around them are on private, not public lands, the bill focuses funds on remote public lands. It is highly likely that homes will continue to burn due to the fact that the agencies have no incentive to spend money to protect communities or to even prioritize this needed community protection work.

The law does not contain any protections for currently healthy forests such as roadless areas or wildlife reserves. In fact, it directs the agencies to conduct "hazardous fuels reduction" projects in threatened and endangered species habitat, thereby reducing quality wildlife habitat for many terrestrial and aquatic species.

The new law allows projects up to 1,000 acres to be categorically excluded from all environmental review if the agencies claim that insects (including native insects) pose a threat to these forests. This has long been an excuse for inappropriate and illegal logging.

Since commercial timber sales are a money loser for the federal treasury, the administration plans to pay logging companies in large, commercially valuable trees instead of cash for their "services". The timber industry will now receive timber as their payment for building roads to cut down the forests and if roads can't be built, logging companies will be given a subsidy to cover the cost of removing trees by helicopter.

Forest defenders must remain vigilant in documenting and voicing the abuses that the agencies are certain to carry out under these new powers. We must continue to organize in our communities and to speak out against the egregious impacts of corporate logging. The on-the-ground fight in this next year is critical and now more urgent than ever.

For more information, visit American Lands Alliance.

Lisa Dix is the campaign coordinator for the American Lands Alliance.

© Earth First! Journal January-February 2004