Lawsuits delay tree thinning, fire prevention


Mar 11, 2001
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Forest Service says suits delay thinning  

By Mike Soraghan, Denver Post Washington Bureau

July 10, 2002

- WASHINGTON - Nearly half of the U.S. Forest Service's attempts to cut the underbrush that fuels catastrophic wildfires such as the Hayman blaze have been delayed by environmental appeals, according to an internal Forest Service report obtained by The Denver Post.

In the Rocky Mountain region that includes Colorado, only 11 percent of the thinning projects have been appealed. But in states such as Montana, 100 percent of the cutting projects were challenged. Out of 326 thinning projects nationwide for 2001 and the first half of 2002, the report found that 155 - 48 percent - were appealed. Six percent went to court.

The report further fuels a high-stakes Washington battle over how the forests are being managed - for timber or for critters. Both sides agree that thinning the forests is needed, but they bitterly disagree over how and where to thin.

The Forest Service's new numbers are intended to refute a report cited repeatedly in recent weeks by environmentalists that says they've appealed only 1 percent of thinning projects.

"For those who have spent the last several weeks downplaying the impact of appeals and litigation on forest management, this report is a bucket of cold water in the face," said Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who chairs the House Forest subcommittee.

"The American people can expect a decades-long cycle of destructive wildfires if this crusade against forest management continues," he said.

McInnis commissioned the original report by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, which found that only 20 of 1,671 projects were appealed. Though most appeals were filed by environmental groups, the GAO found the timber industry and ski areas also filed some suits.

McInnis says that report was flawed. The Forest Service report was done as part of a new, more thorough GAO report he requested.

McInnis and others say environmental groups' repeated challenges to logging and thinning projects have left the forests clogged with underbrush that fuels fires.

Environmentalists say they support thinning and controlled burns to protect homes and communities against wildfire. But they oppose thinning far from cities, which they consider to be commercial logging in disguise. And they said Tuesday that they're suspicious of the new report they view as ready-made to prove Bush administration complaints about "analysis paralysis" in the forests.

"Who challenged these projects? What were those projects?" said Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild, which has joined in appealing some Colorado thinning projects. "The Forest Service is not perfect in proposing fire risk projects. They're new at it. They've been steeped in commercial logging for 100 years."

The Forest Service's analysis increases the percentage of appealed projects because it doesn't include prescribed burns, focusing instead on cutting projects because they "tend to be challenged more often," according to the report.

Of the 2.25 million acres thinned in 2001, only about 200,000 were burned, according to a separate federal government report.

The report considers all appeals under the National Environmental Policy Act, although some may have been filed by other interests.

Environmental groups are more likely to appeal cutting projects because they're wary that they'll turn into large-scale timbering operations. They've traditionally prefered controlled or "prescribed" burns, where there is less profit.

But Republicans say the report also downplays the delays caused by appeals in Colorado, because the five projects appealed in the Rocky Mountain Region are much bigger than the 41 that were not appealed. They include the South Platte Restoration Project southwest of Denver and a "Bark Beetle Project" in the Routt National Forest near Steamboat Springs.

"The projects that have been appealed are much larger-scale than those that have slid by," said Josh Penry, staff director of the House forest subcommittee.

Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service for the Bush administration, has said that simply counting appeals doesn't show how much time forest managers spend on their plans trying to make sure they'll withstand a challenge.
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