House passes forest thinning bill
Bush says measure will help prevent forest fires
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives approved legislation Tuesday that would encourage more logging in federal forests and sharply limit appeals to block such projects.
Supporters say the Healthy Forests Restoration Act will lessen the threat of forest fires, but critics say it will open the door to widespread thinning of forests.
The vote was 256-170, with eight House members not voting. Most Democrats opposed the measure, while most Republicans supported it. The Senate has yet to consider the bill.
Earlier Tuesday, President Bush called on both houses of Congress to move quickly to approve the bill, which he called "good, common-sense environmental policy."
The president said the legislation would reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fires, by encouraging the logging of fallen and smaller trees that provide fuel for large blazes.
"During seasonal droughts, these small trees act as ladders, for fires to reach to the top of our oldest and tallest trees," the president said at a news conference outside the White House.
Even before the president spoke, major environmental groups denounced the legislation as a cynical ploy and a giveaway to logging interests.
The bill "is not a fire protection plan, it's a logging plan," the Wilderness Society said on its Web site.
Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Land and Forests, said he would begin Senate hearings upon passage of the House bill.
Last year's fire season was especially devastating, with fires scorching more than 7 million acres, more than double the average for the last 10 years, Bush said.
But the Sierra Club said on its Web site that the bill "fails to responsibly direct taxpayer dollars and federal resources to assist homeowners and community leaders," and "fails to allow citizens to retain their rights to be involved in federal land management."
"The U.S. Forest Service Fire Research lab has found that the best method to protect homes from a forest fire is by creating defensible space 100 feet around a home and 500 meters around communities," the Sierra Club said.
Both the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society support an alternate bill, introduced by Democratic Reps. George Miller of California and Peter DeFazio of Oregon, which would also encourage thinning of forests on private land, but would leave more environmental safeguards and explicitly forbid the logging of old-growth trees.
Tuesday, Bush dismissed the critics. "We need less bickering, less politics and more sound common-sense policy," he said.
"Our forests are a treasure," he continued. "We must preserve them. We must protect the people and communities who depend on them. We must fulfill our promise to the next generation, and leave behind a world as blessed and as beautiful as the one our parents left to us."