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House Set to Vote on Fire Legislation That Fails to Protect Communities

New GAO Report Undermines Premise of McInnis Bill
May 19, 2003
Washington DC —

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote tomorrow on a bill introduced by Rep. Scott McInnis (R-CO) that claims to reduce the risk of wildfire but in reality does next to nothing to protect homes and communities in the West. The bill stands in sharp contrast to a proposal by conservation groups that would help communities and homeowners protect themselves from wildfire.

The McInnis bill, like the Bush administration's so-called Healthy Forests initiative, does not focus scarce federal funding and resources where they would do the most good: in the Community Protection Zone adjacent to at-risk communities. Instead, the bill would continue to allow the Forest Service and Department of Interior to conduct misguided logging projects deep in the backcountry in the name of "fuel reduction." An alternative proposal introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) would require that necessary resources are focused on responsible fuel reduction projects immediately around communities.

"Fire season is just around the corner, but Rep. McInnis continues to overlook the very communities that need help," said Mike Francis, Director of the National Forest Program at The Wilderness Society. "In fact, his plans would provide more help to timber companies than to fire-threatened and cash-starved communities."

The McInnis bill relies heavily on claims of "analysis paralysis" to limit citizen participation and judicial review by cutting the heart out of the nation's bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) -- the requirement that alternatives to agency actions be considered. However, a report issued by the General Accounting Office (GAO) last week analyzed 762 Forest Service fuel reduction projects proposed during the past two years, of which 95 percent were ready for implementation within the standard 90-day review period [724 of 762]. These findings contradict the very premise on which the McInnis bill -- and the Bush Administration's plan -- is based. The latest GAO report supports previous findings from a 2001 GAO report and a 2003 report from researchers at Northern Arizona University.

"Why is Rep. McInnis trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist while ignoring the larger problem of protecting communities from fire?" asked Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director.

"The GAO report shows that the process works," said Marty Hayden, Legislative Director for Earthjustice, the nation's largest non-profit environmental law firm. "The overwhelming majority of projects get the green light to proceed in 90 days or less."

The Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Earthjustice, American Lands, Natural Resources Defense Council, U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), Alaska Coalition, National Environmental Trust, Defenders of Wildlife, Trout Unlimited and other national, regional and local environmental groups support an alternative approach, known as the Community Protection Plan. The groups advocate fuel reduction projects and "firewise" protections along the boundaries of communities adjacent to forest lands.

Through grants to states and funding for communities, the Community Protection Plan would provide funds for fuel reduction on private, state and tribal lands -- which comprise 85 percent of the forested land near vulnerable communities -- as well as on federal lands. In contrast, the McInnis bill does not prioritize projects that would create a crucial defensible space around western communities. Instead it calls for logging 20 million acres of federal lands, often far from any community, and provides virtually no funding for fuel reduction on non-federal lands.

"The McInnis bill is a plan to benefit industry under the guise of fire prevention," said Nathaniel Lawrence, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It would undermine our bedrock environmental laws and the independent judicial review that is a cornerstone of American democracy."

"It is time for Representative McInnis and the Bush administration to start protecting communities at risk instead of the profits of the timber industry," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, U.S. PIRG Conservation Advocate. "We urge members of Congress to protect at-risk communities by voting against the McInnis bill on Tuesday."

CONTACTS:

Annie Strickler, Sierra Club (202) 675-2384

Chris Mehl, The Wilderness Society (406) 581-4992 (cell)

Cat Lazaroff, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500 x213

Craig Noble, Natural Resources Defense Council (415) 777-0220

Brad Devries, Defenders of Wildlife (202) 682-9400 x237

Jennifer Coate, National Environmental Trust (202) 887-8855

Tiernan Sittenfeld, U.S. PIRG, (202) 546-9707 x311

Contacts

Cat Lazaroff, 202-667-4500 x213

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