KWAME HOLMAN: Those hundreds of thousands of acres of burning California forests, the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property destroyed, and the loss of life have convinced members of the senate to brush aside many of the concerns of environmentalists and push through new forest management legislation which had been sidelined for months. The new rules would allow the U.S. Forest Service to thin out millions of acres of federal forest land of brush, small trees, and dead trees for the first time in decades.
SPOKESMAN: Senator from Mississippi.
SPOKESMAN: Mr. President...
KWAME HOLMAN: Thad Cochran is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
SEN. THAD COCHRAN: In the past, the U.S. Forest Service has been forced to spend great amounts of time and resources battling lawsuits instead of managing the forests. The result has been months and even years of delays in fuel reduction projects. And our forests have continued to suffer, and they have continued to burn.
KWAME HOLMAN: It primarily was western state senators who began coming to the floor yesterday to describe just how serious the problems in their states are. Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski:
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI: This is a picture of forest that have been totally wiped out by the spruce bark beetle. There is not a tree that you look at in the forefront or in the background that is alive. Every one of these trees are dead. These trees that you are looking at are probably thirty to forty feet high. These are very mature old-growth trees that are standing, standing, waiting for an accident to happen-- waiting for a fire.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, which no longer is waiting for a fire:
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The first area where the southern California fires are burning is the pine forests of the San Bernardino Mountains. I want you to take a look at these forests and look at the homes in the middle of this forest: House, house, house, house, house, house, house, house, house, house, house, house, house. House, house, house, house, house. Do you notice the yellow forest? That is all dead and dying and infested bark beetle forest. There are 44,000 homes located in the Big Bear/Arrowhead area where this fire is now on two sides, moving. Look at these homes. Look at the dead and dying trees. Does anyone believe they have a chance of surviving if this forest isn't cleaned?
KWAME HOLMAN: Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin questioned why those homes were built there in the first place.
SEN. TOM HARKIN: If someone wants to build a house out in a wilderness area, fine, I have no problem with that. It's private land. They can do that. But I don't know that we then have the responsibility as taxpayers to come in and say we are going to spend millions of dollars to protect your house from a wildfire.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate bill, called "Healthy Forests," would provide $760 million a year, double the current amount, to the Forest Service for thinning operations on 20 million acres of federal land. Half of that money would be spent in forests closest to populated areas. Court orders blocking such projects would expire after 60 days unless renewed. Idaho Republican Mike Crapo:
SEN. MIKE CRAPO: Finally, it requires the court to balance the harms of what would happen if we don't do the thinning project or the proposed fuel reduction project, and the future harms that could come as a result of that against the current harm of what the injunction is proposed to stop.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Senator Harkin warned his colleagues against moving too fast on this legislation.
SEN. TOM HARKIN: This is not a bill that we can take a wink and a nod and let it go because everyone agrees with it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Harkin said he spoke on behalf environmental groups who complained the new rules were written too loosely, and used the "small trees" definition as an example.
SEN. TOM HARKIN: It is my understanding that these small trees can go up to 12 inches in diameter, and that these are the trees that loggers want now. These seem to be what is in demand. I am not a contractor. I don't build houses and stuff like that. But I am to understand that these are the ones most in demand right now, trees up to 12 inches in diameter-- that is a pretty good-sized tree. That is not brush. But that is what we are talking about here, going out and clearing those trees.
KWAME HOLMAN: Idaho Republican Larry Craig intimated that Harkin of Iowa didn't have a dog in this fight.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: And before the ranking member of the Ag Committee sits down, I would be more than happy to include the protection of all the old growth in the federal forests of Iowa in this bill, if it existed. Or maybe we would put a prohibition against wildfires in Iowa on public lands in this bill. And that is something we could accomplish, because those two issues-- both the old growth, which I am sure the state of Iowa wished it had, and wildfires, which I know they would not want-- don't exist in Iowa, because no federal forest lands exist there.
KWAME HOLMAN: Though the healthy forests bill, stoked by the wildfires, was moving swiftly tonight toward approval in the Senate, it still could stall once the fires die out, and the legislation meets a version even less acceptable to environmentalists approved by the House last spring.