WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ending a three-year impasse on wildfire legislation, Congress approved a compromise bill Friday to reduce the risk of fire in national forests, focusing much of the effort on areas near homes and towns.
Supporters called the bill, the first major forest management legislation in a quarter-century, a landmark step to improve forest health and protect communities near public lands.
Critics called it a giveaway to the timber industry that will limit public participation and leave old-growth trees and remote, roadless areas of forests at risk of logging.
President Bush welcomed the bill's passage. On his return from a state visit to Britain, he said the legislation ``will help us maintain our national treasure, our forests, begin providing a commonsense strategy and making sure that the fire hazards that we've seen over the last couple of summers are mitigated as best as possible.''
The bill resembles Bush's ``Healthy Forests Initiative,'' which he proposed in August 2002. Both plans would streamline approval of projects to thin overgrown forests, so they can be completed within months rather than years. Much of the president's forest plan has already been implemented through administrative actions.
The new bill will ``certainly benefit the communities that live near forests that are unnaturally overgrown and will help protect wildlife habitat and watersheds as well as the forests themselves,'' said Dana Perino, a Bush spokeswoman.
The Senate passed the bill by voice vote less than an hour after the House approved it, 286-140.
``The smoke of the politics of forest fire policy has finally cleared,'' said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who helped negotiate the final compromise.
The bill will give federal land managers additional tools to treat forest land and protect homes, wildlife and watersheds, Craig and other supporters said. The combination of dry underbrush and legal opposition has helped turned some Western forests into tinderboxes, they said.
``Lawsuits and red tape have led to inaction, and inaction has led to millions of acres that are destined to burn so hot and move so fast that communities have no choice but to evacuate,'' said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.
Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, said the bill will be seen as a significant turning point, ``when scientific management began to regain dominance over benign neglect, and when communities began to regain influence over the federal lands surrounding them.''
Wildfires in California burned nearly 750,000 acres this fall, causing 22 deaths and destroying more than 3,600 homes. The fires also softened opposition to the bill, as it became clear Congress was intent on passing a wildfire bill this year.
Some Democrats argued in the House debate that the bill was a gift the timber industry, which they said will be able to use the new law to log old-growth trees and cut remote, roadless areas of forests.
``We're not interested in healthy forests,'' said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. ``What we are interested in is a big giveaway to people who want to cut down trees on public lands. That's what this bill is all about.''
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the bill, if properly implemented, ``will begin to undo 100 years of mismanagement of national forests.''
The measure would authorize $760 million a year for thinning projects on 20 million acres of federal land, a $340 million increase. At least half of all money spent on those projects must be near homes and communities.
The bill also creates a major change in the way that federal courts consider legal challenges of tree-cutting projects.
Judges would have to weigh the environmental consequences of inaction and the risk of fire in cases involving thinning projects. Any court order blocking such projects would have to be reconsidered every 60 days.
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