Wildfire Move: U.S. Plans Tree-Thinning in Forests

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration skirted a resistant Congress on Wednesday and moved ahead with its own plan to thin fire-prone forests by speeding up environmental reviews and appeals.

The step angered environmentalists, who charged it would damage federal lands, increase fire risk to communities and make it harder for opponents to stand in the way. The plan came two weeks after the administration proposed to give forest managers greater leeway to approve logging and commerce activities with less examination of potential environmental damages.

Lawmakers refused this fall to enact President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative, which would have accelerated reviews and appeals and identified 10 million acres as urgently needing trees cut and brush removed, to ease the risk of fire. The administration said Wednesday it was advancing with the core provisions of the plan anyway.

The administration has sent teams to 10 forest areas, with the goal of starting cutting by next year's fire season. Officials want to expand the program to as many as 190 million acres.

Public land managers would do a quick environmental assessment. But areas chosen for thinning would be exempted from the current requirement for a comprehensive environmental impact statement, which can take years.

The initiative builds on a program first used by the Clinton administration to allow certain thinning projects to go forward.

Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said exhaustive environmental impact statements will be done in cases where the effects of thinning are not clear.

But the right to appeal a decision would be curbed, automatic delays of nearly three months would be eliminated and cutting could go on while an appeal was being heard.

The initiative applies to lands owned by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management.

The areas to be thinned would not be in wilderness areas or regions where there are threatened or endangered species, the White House said.

The shorter timetables are meant to avert what the administration considers delaying tactics _ or ``analysis paralysis,'' as Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman calls it.

``The improvements we're announcing will give managers the tools they need to protect our national treasures,'' she said. ``With these tools, we will leave future generations a legacy of healthy forests, safer communities and a quality environment.''

Interior Secretary Gale Norton cited the toll of last year's fire season, which burned 7.1 million acres, an area the size of Maryland and Rhode Island. Tens of thousands of people were driven from their homes, more than 23,000 structures burned and 21 firefighters died.

Yet environmentalists condemned the plan, which is subject to 60 to 90 days of public comment, but not to congressional approval. Mike Francis, with the Wilderness Society, said the administration is trying to cut people out of decisions about the forests.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said the step was a ``payback to the timber industry,'' although much of the wood will be too small for commercial use.