Arizona's forests will be made safer from devastating wildfires under legislation signed Wednesday by President Bush, members of the state's congressional delegation said.
But they add that the enhanced protection could fall short of what is needed to restore the nation's forests to a healthy condition.
“It's good news given where we were,” Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said of the legislation, which will simplify the procedures federal land managers must go through to carry out forest-thinning projects aimed at reducing wildfire risk.
“Hopefully, when these reforms are proven effective then we can go further. In the end, this is not as much as we need. We need a lot more.”
Flake and Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said they will continue to push for additional reforms to speed the process of planning and finishing projects that will reduce the risk of wildfires on public lands.
“Any legislation is incremental,” Hayworth said. “This is not won and done. This is an important first step, but much more remains to be done.”
The Healthy Forest Restoration Act was three years in the making. Its passage was fueled by catastrophic wildfires that have raged across Western states, including the 469,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona last year. The bill had stalled in the Senate, but moved quickly after recent wildfires tore through more than 750,000 acres in California, killing 22 people and destroying 3,640 homes.
The bill allows certain projects aimed at reducing fire danger to bypass most normal planning and environmental study procedures required in a litany of federal laws. It limits the amount of land that can be treated under its provisions to 20 million acres deemed most at risk of a catastrophic wildfire.
The measure also allocates $760 million for forest-thinning projects and requires that at least half of that be spent adjacent to communities deemed to be in danger from wildfires.
‘‘This law will not prevent every fire, but it is an important step forward, a vital step to make sure we do our duty to protect our nation’s forests,’’ Bush said while standing in front of rows of wildland firefighters during a signing ceremony Wednesday. ‘‘We’ll help save lives and property and we’ll help protect our forests from sudden and needless destruction.’’
Other provisions require judges to balance wildfire risks against short-term environmental impacts when deciding whether to block forest-thinning projects. The bill also requires judges to reconsider injunctions that block forest-thinning treatments within 60 days.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he would have preferred stronger legislation, but added the bill was the best compromise that could make it out of Congress. Part of that compromise was requiring half of the work be confined to areas around communities, Kyl said. Large fires in Arizona this year have shown that merely thinning narrow bands around communities is not enough to protect them from wildfires that develop deep in overgrown forests, he said.
“I would have liked to have seen more consideration given to the deeper forests,” Kyl said.
That provision causes concern from environmentalists, who say more of the work needs to be done around communities, said Rob Smith, southwest regional director for the Sierra Club. Even though the legislation doubles the appropriation for forest thinning, there is not enough money or time to treat the entire forest, Smith said. It makes more sense to target the resources in areas adjacent to communities, where the work will be more apt to save lives and homes, he said.
“At this moment there are communities at risk and our concern is they are not going to be able to get that part done, and people will continue to live in more dangerous conditions than they need to,” Smith said. “We simply don't need to treat the back woods until we've taken care of the communities. The big argument is one of priority.”
Smith said he also is concerned that allowing so much work deep in the woods creates an incentive for agencies to proceed with projects that will allow timber companies to cut large, old trees because those are the ones that are commercially valuable.
- The Associated Press contributed to this report.