"Healthy Forest Initiative" Becomes Law

posted December 4, 2003
by Kevin Colburn

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On December 3rd, 2003 President Bush announced the passing of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, also known as the Healthy Forest Initiative. This controversial piece of legislation is intended to reduce the impact of wildfires but critics say it will do little to alleviate wildfires and will instead increase industrial logging of old growth and other sensitive areas.

Specifically according to CNN, "The measure authorizes $760 million a year for thinning projects on 20 million acres of federal land, a $340 million increase. At least half of all money spent on those projects must be near homes and communities." It is the other half that worries environmentalists.

The Sierra Club reflected on the passing of the Act with the following statement, "the Bush Administration exploited the public's justified fear of fires to pass a bill that effectively removes citizen participation, interferes with the judicial system, increases commercial logging, leaves old-growth and roadless forests vulnerable, all while leaving communities at risk.

Sierra Club's Sean Cosgrove, said the legislation will increase logging in roadless areas as timber companies try to harvest valuable old-growth trees.

"The timber industry fought real hard for this bill for a reason, and it's not because they want to remove brush," Cosgrove said. "This is about increasing commercial logging with less environmental oversight."

A primary concern with the Act is that it limits public input. President Bush stated yesterday in a speech that "The bill expedites the environmental review process so we can move forward more quickly on projects that restore forests to good health. We don't want our intentions bogged down by regulations." Earlier this year the president addressed the same topic in a speech given in Oregon: "We are speeding up the process of environmental assessments and consolations required by law. Look, we want people to have input. If somebody has got a different point of view, we need to hear it. This is America. We expect to hear people's different points of view in this country. But we want people to understand that we're talking about the health of our forests, and if there's a high priority, we need to get after it before the forests burn and people lose life."

The Sierra Club counters that the Act "Limit(s) environmental analysis and limit public participation by (a) excluding environmental analysis for any site-specific project the Forest Service and BLM claim will reduce hazardous fuels, including post-fire salvage projects; and by (b) limiting public participation by allowing "hazardous fuels reduction projects" to be categorically excluded and suspends citizen's rights to appeal projects.

The passage of the Act was triggered by recent wildfires in California and elsewhere. A review by the Wilderness Society of the California fires indicates that the Act would have done little to stop the fires had it been enacted previously. American Whitewater's conservation staff agree that no forest legislation or forest management prescription including 100% clearcutting would have stopped this past summer's forest fires. In fact, clearcutting would likely have made it worse because it is the small vegetation such as grasses and shrubs that have a higher burn quotient than a standing tree dead or alive. While the Act is passed, how it will be implemented and how it will affect the rivers we paddle remains to be seen.

For more information check out a recent article by CNN , the Whitehouse page on the Act, or the Sierra Club web page.