By JACK SULLIVAN
Associated Press Writer
BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST, S.D. (AP) - Cleared of Ponderosa
pines, firebreaks wider than football fields run along some ridges
in this western South Dakota forest.
Stripped trees hauled from a roadless area that once was
off-limits to cutting are stacked, free to anyone who wants
firewood. Commercial loggers are at work, thinning stretches of the
forest's thick canopy to keep future fires from becoming an
inferno.
"If a crown fire were to blow through, it would just be
horrific," Ed Fischer, environmental coordinator for the Black
Hills National Forest, said as he looked down from a Forest Service
road near the Beaver Park Roadless Area.
After court disputes delayed work in Beaver Park and wildfires
scorched thousands of acres of national forest over two summers,
Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson pushed legislation last year that
directed the Forest Service to get to work.
The Democratic senators say they didn't look past the need to
protect the towns and many private homes that dot the forest. But
Republicans cite the move, particularly Daschle's role as
then-Senate majority leader, when they argue for wide-ranging
proposals they say would better protect other forests against fire.
"He did it for the Black Hills and yet, what about all the
other forests that are stymied under the same red tape?" said Rep.
Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.
Daschle and Johnson reject the comparison, although they agree
forest-management practices need to be improved. The senators point
out that Black Hills legislation was drafted after lengthy
settlement negotiations between the Forest Service, state
officials, conservationists and the timber industry.
"If you're going to do what I did legislatively, you're going
to have to back up and do what I did through the negotiation
process first, because each forest is different," Daschle said.
The Black Hills measure directed a range of work on about 5,000
acres of the 1.2 million-acre national forest and blocked future
court challenges, citing extraordinary circumstances.
The Black Hills provisions - firebreaks, forest thinning,
limited court challenges and adjusted environmental reviews -
parallel a Republican plan drafted by Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis.
It's headed to the House floor.
Johnson said there are critical differences.
"I think it would be a mistake to assume that a closely
negotiated plan for the Black Hills is necessarily the answer for
every other forest in the country," Johnson said.
Last year's mandate "wasn't even applicable to the entire Black
Hills forest," he said.
When the Senate takes up the plan, Daschle said wants "to try
to find a legislative framework to take what we've done in the
Black Hills and apply it to other circumstances - so long as people
know it's still going to take some negotiation."
Daschle hasn't decided his view of the McInnis legislation,
although it may be too much of "a one-size-fits-all template that
may not work in these forests once they attempt to implement it,"
he said.
"But, again, I'm not making any final judgment on that."
McInnis' bill calls for aggressive logging on up to 20 million
acres of federal land considered at high risk of fire.
It would streamline public appeals to speed up forest projects.
And it would allow the Agriculture and Interior secretaries to
approve timber harvests of up to 1,000 acres without environmental
review while they develop programs to control insects.
House Democrats and conservationists have criticized the plan.
Michael Francis, director of the Wilderness Society's national
forests program, said the conservation group prefers a House
Democratic alternative to limit forest work to within a half-mile
of communities. Supporters argue work in those areas does the most
good.
"The McInnis bill is nothing more than what the industry has
always wanted to do, and that's get rid of the environmental
protections and get rid of these pesky citizens," he said.
Rep. Bill Janklow, R-S.D., said the GOP proposal allows citizens
to bring appeals, but only if they had taken part in the national
forest's earlier decision-making process.
He said the rule amounts to the government saying: "Hey,
Janklow, if you want to be a player, you have to show up for the
first couple innings."
Janklow was South Dakota's governor when fires burned the Black
Hills over the last three years. He clashed with the Forest Service
over the best way to fight the fires.
Janklow said he has one big complaint with the Black Hills
agreement: "It's 5,000 acres," when the rest of the forest and
others across the country also face a threat of fire stemming from
forest management.
The streaks of rust red that stain parts of the Black Hills near
Beaver Park are evidence of the threat: Those trees are dead,
killed by mountain pine beetles that are attracted to dense pine
stands - and turn those stands into kindling.
Once beetles burrow into the trees, foresters have less than a
year to cut the trees before new beetles born beneath the bark take
flight, leaving behind dying trees as they look for new trees to
repeat the cycle, said Fischer, the forest's environmental
coordinator.
Dense stands of dead and drying trees only increase the fire
risk posed by closely grown forest canopies, Fischer said, and
thinning can solve both problems.
"If we can address the mountain pine beetle aspect of it, we'll
also address the fire aspect of it," he said.
Despite its limited scope, the Black Hills legislation was "a
symbolic watershed moment" because Daschle affirmed changes needed
to be made, said Josh Penry, staff director for the House Resources
Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.
"Western members of Congress have been arguing for years that
the status quo hasn't been working," Penry said.
"It still ripples through," he said. "It still does have an
effect, because it crystalized the inadequacies of the process."
McInnis referred to the Black Hills plan at a hearing on his
wildfire proposal when staffers unloaded three boxes of documents
that he said were only part of the administrative record on the
South Dakota forest.
"Senator Daschle, apparently tired of the viscous cycle of
analysis, appeals and lawsuits tormenting these projects, took
matters into his own hands and legislated these projects into
forward movement," McInnis said.
Francis called GOP references to the Black Hills legislation a
"sideshow" to the larger debate over how to best prevent fire.
"Politically, I can see why McInnis points to it, because he
wants to say, 'Daschle got his, why can't we get ours?"' Francis
said.
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On the Net:
Black Hills National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/blackhills/
U.S. Forest Service fire information:
http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/index.html
The Wilderness Society: http://www.wilderness.org