Forest Bill A Positive Step, Official Says

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Gila County Supervisor Ron Christensen journeyed to Washington, D.C. earlier this month to witness President Bush sign the much-anticipated Healthy Forest Bill.

On Dec. 2, the president signed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

"Although not perfect, this act is an important first step in the right direction," Christensen said.

The supervisor also is chairman of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, which has come out in support of the bill.

"For too long, we have been mired in a sea of lawsuits, appeals and prolonged decision processes," Christensen said. "Finally, we have hope that forest professionals will have the tools needed to accomplish larger scale fire hazard reduction and forest-watershed restoration."

Christensen said an important aspect of the bill is additional hazard fuel project funds.

"Very soon, we should know how much money will be made available," Christensen said. "I anticipate a considerable amount of money coming to the Forest Service."

Other highlights of the legislations, Christensen said:

  • The bidding process for timber cutting will be speeded up.
  • The forest stewardship program will be enhanced.
  • Public participation in setting priorities in forest management will increase.
  • Streamlining measures will be made in the National Environmental Protection Act process.
  • The billions spent on firefighting will be redirected to restoration and cleanup.

"Millions will have to go into it and we will be at it for a few years," Christensen said.

He said he has heard 11 million acres of forest have burned in the last two years.

"Congress is recognizing (the problem) and is focusing on reducing the risk of catastrophic fires," Christensen said.

He said he will try to help get as much money as possible to the Rim country.

"With the almost total loss of the forest products industry, it is impossible for private business to bear the up-front cost of thinning and fuels hazard removal," Christensen said.

"If Congress follows this authorization with actual dollars, we could finally see a significant effort to move forward to protect homes and communities on a larger scale."

"It took years to develop the current conditions and it will take time to undo the damage and reduce the threats of wildfire," according to Kathy Gibson Boatman, whose parents lost their home near Heber to the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. She is a concerned citizen who has been very active in the process to educate the public about forest health issues.

The bill limits treatment to 20 million acres, while estimates place 190 million acres at high risk of fire, she said.

"Even if the limitation didn't exist, it would probably still take years before 20 million acres could be treated," Boatman said. "The healthy bill requires that a person is involved in the early stages of a project in order to obtain standing."

She explained that "involved in the early stages" means opponents of a forest management action would need to participate at the start of the NEPA process.

"They cannot come in after a timber sale has been awarded and sue to stop it," Boatman said. "Those that desire to manage the forest through litigation and the courts, will still have the opportunity to litigate, as long as they are involved in the process from the beginning.

"This is a considerable attempt to keep land management decisions at the local level and address the frequent litigation filed by radical environmental groups.

"It will be very interesting to watch the courts' interpretation of the new laws, especially the part that requires judges to consider both the short- and long-term effects of undertaking the proposed actions," she said.

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