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Senators reconsider a filibuster from hell

By John G. Lankford
web posted June 23, 2003

Backlit by the inferno that razed the mountain paradise of Summerhaven, Arizona last week, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is set to take up legislation aimed at preventing just such calamities on June 26.

Most of a year ago, the same measure became one center of a "No, you're the obstructionists" spite fight between Senate Democrats and Republicans. As wildfire devoured record expanses of the nation, principally in the drought-beleaguered west, the remedy died on the ash heap of that Congressional session's history.

The following November, in the 2002 off-year elections, voters told Democrats, "You're it." Although Repubicans held more seriously-contested Senate seats going in, the outcome handed them a Senate majority.

Now the forest wildfire abatement proposal, this year named the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, passed the House of Representatives by an impressive 256-170 margin. Despite slavering vituperation from strident Green organizations such as The Wilderness Society, that margin raises the possibility many Democrats are willing to concede this issue: Images -- and realities -- of thousands of square miles of wilderness consigned to federal government care in smoking ruins out-glare any volume of Green rhetoric.

Flaming Filibuster 2002

On Thursday June 19, the Western Governors Association, representing 18 states, concluded a three-day conference on forest policy and looming fire hazards. Addressing the pending legislation and proposed federal agency rules changes now under review, the governors said, in a word, "Hurry."

Congressman Greg Alden (R-OR), who co-introduced the Restoration Act in the House, has cordially acknowledged Democrats' crossover aupport that enabled its lopsided passage by calling it bi-partisan. Ominously, however, the Western Governors, including state chief executives of both parties, concluding a three-day Forest Health Summit June 19 issued a patently hard-bargained communique' urging the Senate to make "collaborative" efforts and expressly forbore to "endorse specific legislation or proposals."

The governors actually initiated high-powered impetus for forest policy reform. Responding to deteriorating forest conditions and particularly to serious conflagrations in 1999 and 2000, they issued a ten-year plan for woodland cleanup.

That document and western senators' energies spurred initiatives, but little progress was made until record fires broke out in 2002 - and then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) slipped special provisions for expedited fire control for some national woodlands in his home state only into a sure-to-pass supplementary defense appropriations bill.

Other senators promptly demanded equal treatment for distressed woodlands in their own fire-threatened states. During the 2002 Congressional summer recess, President George Bush announced his Healthy Forests Initiative, generally derived from the Western Governors' plan, and the substance of it was introduced as the Craig-Domenici Amendment to an amendment offered by Sen. Robert Byrd (D WV) to the Interior Department's 2002-03 appopriations bill.

Environmentalists erupted and a filibuster ensued. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) offered an amendment proposing measures more to Greens' liking, but it went nowhere. Eventually, Congress adjourned with no forest cleanup legislation passed - and the Interior Department unfunded, floating on a continuing budget resolution.

And, as documented by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, the forests and rangelands continued to suffer.

Merits As Indisputable As Urgency

The problem is that, over years, strict fire suppression, low Forest Service budgets, and environmentalist administrative appeals and lawsuits against many Forest Service timber sales and management projects, resulted in a vast buildup of highly combustible underbrush and deadfall. Insect infestation burgeoned, both in unmanaged terrain and tracts burned off by wildfires: ecological hands-off advocates blocked even the removal of dead-burned trees, offering bugs more opportunities. Eventually ever-larger wildfires began to erupt, scorching millions of acres.

The Western Governors' plan, the Healthy Forests Initiative, and the current Healthy Forests Restoration Act propose to address this by authorizing the Forest Service to make special sales and contracts with logging companies, which would remove underbrush and deadfall, thin crosded areas, and make what they could - principally wood chips for particleboard and plywood.

Green organizations would actually prefer all humans vacate forest and rural settings, but, as a practical matter, favor solutions such as the Bingaman Amendment of 2002. That approach would keep logging companies out and use sparse Forest Service, Lands Management, and Park Service personnel to clear and controlled-burn narrow buffer zones around inhabited areas. They charge forest products companies are conniving with the Forest Service to ignore settled areas and dive for rich timber tracts in the deep woods.

The current Forest Service chief views Greens' contentions as ill-founded, maintaining the Restoration Act will furnish greater protection for human habitats and better all-around forest stewardship at lower cost to taxpayers. The National Association of Forest Service Retirees' president Douglas Leisz, in a letter to the Washington Times, agreed. The letter synopsized the recently-published NAFSR report, "Forest Health and Fire: An Overview and Evaluation." As exemplified by the racing, roaring Summerhaven blaze, the report rejects the notion narrow buffer zone clearing would be sufficient.

The merits are not in serious dispute: As to actual land management, the debate is one of forestry against fallacy. But the debate involves a conflict between broader policy positions: inclusive, mixed-use stewardship of natural resources, or exclusion of all but specially permitted humans from even walking on public lands. If the Restoration Act, authorizing intrusion for logging, thinning, and cleaning becomes law the rationale for barring other uses and denying access to other users pales.

The political landscape differs again. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act will in all likelihood emerge from the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, moving on to the full Senate with a report favoring passage.

Whether Green-beholden Democrats will indulge that constituency and conduct another filibuster from Hell, or listen to another traditional Democratic constituency, labor unions, which favor the bill, and let it pass as occurred in the House, remains to be seen.

John G. Lankford is a one-time reporter, retired lawyer and resident of Ambergris Caye, Belize. He has contributed to SierraTimes.com, AldenChronicles.com, Enter Stage Right, RadicalPositivism.org and other online publications.

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