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Walden, DeFazio stand together on forest bill

GRANTS PASS ' Congressmen Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio are the first to admit they don't usually see eye to political eye.

But Walden, R-Hood River, and DeFazio, D-Springfield, stand side by side on the McInnis-Miller wildfire legislation they helped craft that is designed to break the political logjam over how to avoid a repeat of this year's massive wildfires on federal forestlands in the West.

We agree we want healthy forests in Oregon and that we want to do something about these catastrophic wildfires that have devastated so many communities, so many lives and so much of our forestlands, our watersheds and our treasured parts of Oregon, Walden said during a press conference late Friday morning.

It's not that we started out agreeing on everything but that we agreed to work on the difficult issues and find solutions where we have differences, DeFazio said.

The two represent the broad spectrum of support for the bill, which is expected to go to the full House late next week, he added.

We believe that doing nothing is not an option, he added. We have to move forward.

The package doesn't please everyone, but it is one that a majority of the community will support to create healthier forests while reducing the fire risk, DeFazio said.

The agreement seeks to expedite projects to thin out trees in overgrown regions, focusing on areas near homes, in watersheds, in endangered species habitat and in diseased or insect-infested forests.

The bill would streamline environmental studies ' requiring the government to look at fewer alternatives ' and tighten deadlines for administrative and judicial appeals. Seventy percent of the forest treatment projects would have to be focused on areas where the federal land abuts homes or watersheds.

We're talking about a hundred years of mismanagement of the federal forests, some of it very well-intentioned, DeFazio said, referring to fire suppression and other forest activities that have created an abnormal buildup of fire fuels.

The goal is to have both healthy ecosystems and healthy economic communities, Walden said.

What you'll find in this legislation is protection for our old growth, protection to return back to prefire suppression, presettlement times, he said, noting that will include expedited thinning programs.

We provide access to the courthouse steps and the appeals process to every citizen, he added. But what this legislation does is streamline that process, to try to get people involved in the beginning to collaboratively design these programs.

If someone doesn't like a project, they can still take legal steps, he said.

Our intention and the way we have constructed this, so many of these projects will be noncontroversial that I don't believe they will even be appealed, and that they will move forward expeditiously, DeFazio said. We'll be able to get work done before the fire season hits us again next summer.

The bill is projected to cut in half the time now needed to implement logging projects designed to remove excess trees from overgrown, at-risk forests.

The legislation, which was named after primary sponsors Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., chairman of the House Resources forests subcommittee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has the backing of local county commissioners.

It's vitally important to get some buffer zones around some of our vulnerable communities, and that's been recognized in the legislation, said Jim Brock, chairman of the Josephine County Board of Commissioners.

Jackson County Commissioner Sue Kupillas agreed.

It's really exciting to have some forward movement on this significant issue, she said, noting that more than 600,000 acres burned in southwestern Oregon this past summer.

Adding that millions of dollars' worth of timber has been lost to the fires, she applauded the congressmen for working together.

I'm really encouraged by this, that we can get started and gain some trust in each other, she said. This will help us learn how to work together to improve our forests rather than have them just burn up.

Fellow Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker echoed similar sentiments. He hopes the bill will allow some of the burned timber to be salvage-logged while helping the timber industry rebuild.

Local 2949 of the Western Council of Industrial Workers also has come out in support of the bill.

But it already has drawn opposition from environmental activists, who, although supportive of fuels reduction, are concerned the bill will result in mature and old-growth trees being cut.

Real fuels reduction targets small trees and brush, said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland. This proposal provides no assurances that the work will be focused on these types of fuels.

Instead, this proposal will make it harder to hold the agencies accountable for degrading watersheds by continued mature and old-growth logging, he added.

If the bill passes the House, it goes to the Senate, where several proposals to speed up forest treatment bogged down last month in partisan battles.

I'm optimistic, DeFazio said. We've got about the broadest spectrum you could get in Congress agreeing on this legislation.

There may be attacks from the right and the left on this, Walden said. But I equate this to one of those helicopter logging outfits that can only lift 10 logs.

You can lift 20. This is a bill that lifts 10. This is a first step to rebuilding trust. This is a first step to try to get in and expedite a process while still observing environmental laws and the right to appeal. But this is doing it in a way that works for the forest and the community.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at