Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., should stop playing politics with our public lands. He should buck the extreme environmental lobby and publicly promote the same kind of streamlined fuels reduction on all U.S. public lands that he has sought quietly for his own state.
On July 23, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by 397-32 the Senate version of the Defense and Homeland Security Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 4775), a spending bill that provides funds for anti-terrorism efforts and other federal programs. Interesting thing about this bill is the fact that included in its text is unrelated language exempting the State of South Dakota from the appeals and litigation requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act. The citizens of South Dakota will thank Daschle and fellow South Dakota Democratic senator Tim Johnson for inserting this language. But the rest of the country needs similar exemptions for their public lands.
The text of the Daschle amendment reads: "Due to the extraordinary circumstances present here, actions authorized by this section shall proceed immediately and to completion notwithstanding any other provisions of law, including, but not limited to, NEPA and the National Forest Management Act. ... Such actions shall also not be subject to the notice, comment, and appeal requirements of the Appeals Reform Act. ... Any action authorized by this section shall not be subject to judicial review by any court of the United States. ..."
Sounds nice. If Oregon had received such an exemption from burdensome planning and public-review requirements, it's likely that agencies could have thinned and selectively logged forests that were dangerously overstocked and now have been blackened by catastrophic fire.
Lightning started many of the 15 fires now burning in our region; however, these fires fed on an abundance of woody material - over-crowded green trees, dense standing and down dead timber, thick brush and ladder fuels. These unmanaged forests provided so much tinder that firefighters, no matter how well equipped, could not extinguish the fires in time to stop their advance.
Oregon needs a quick remedy for its overstocked forests. Waiting for the woods to burn is not a remedy. At least 211,190 acres in Oregon have been scorched during this disastrous, and still young, fire season. More acres are expected to burn this summer and in future summers.
The losses are staggering. Fifteen major wildfires have spread in Oregon, including the Malheur Complex fires located south of Prairie City, burning more than 13,388 acres; the Monument Fire south of Unity, destroying 24,700 acres; and the Winter fire located 10 miles northwest of Paisley, scorching 34,380 acres.
Total cost to contain these fires will be astronomical. At last tally, the bill for our region's fires amounted to $5.4 million and counting on the Monument Fire; more than $2.4 million for the Flagtail Fire; $6.2 million and counting for the Malheur Complex; and $1.4 million and counting for the 747 Fire. That list doesn't begin to place a value on the lost resource, millions of board feet of timber and thousands of acres of habitat devastated by the intense flames.
We need leadership, not smoke-screen politics, to end this nightmare. The double standard from Daschle's action is obvious to all.
On July 24, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., joined members of the House Western Caucus and signed a letter urging Daschle to support hazardous fuels reduction projects in all of America's national forests. The Western Caucus said Daschle's refusal to support similar projects in other western forests would "smack of hypocrisy."
Walden said, "I certainly hope that Sen. Daschle would support efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire across the nation and not simply in his home state. What's good for the goose ought to be good for the gander."
In a 1994 report, the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters said, "The question is no longer if policy-makers will face disastrous wildfires and their enormous costs, but when." Today, we know the answer. When is now.
Daschle stumbled across a solution to the fuels-buildup quagmire on our public lands. Eliminate appeals and litigation. We need to untie the hands of federal land managers and allow them to manage our forests promptly, properly and without obstruction.