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Half a loaf beats starving to death


The Senate's forest bill deserves environmentalists' support

The architects of a compromise forest health bill in the U.S. Senate believe it will pass muster with House Republicans and with the White House, while fixing some of the more onerous provisions in the House version. House Republicans should go along with the changes ' and environmental groups should get out of the way.

The original House bill, backed by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., among others, was rightly criticized by environmentalists as a thinly disguised gift to the timber industry that would do more to encourage commercial logging than to prevent future wildfires.

It would primarily rely on commercial logging of larger trees to pay for thinning, brush removal and other fire-prevention work, and it would not guarantee that any of the work would be done near homes and communities where fire risks are highest.

The bill passed the House but faced an uncertain future in the Senate, where Republicans have a razor-thin majority.

A handful of Senate Democrats, including Ron Wyden of Oregon, worked with Republican colleagues and the Bush administration to craft a compromise. The Senate version would do several things that the House bill would not.

— It would authorize &

36;760 million a year to pay for hazardous fuels reduction projects ' &

36;340 million more than is now budgeted ' rather than relying on commercial logging to pick up the tab.

It would require that 50 percent of the work be done near homes and communities.

And it includes language protecting old-growth trees from logging ' more protection than now exists in federal law.

Is the Senate compromise the perfect solution? No.

Is it better than the House version? Without question.

Is it considerably better than what we have now? Absolutely.

So why are environmental groups complaining? That's a tough one.

In 1867, Otto von Bismark observed, Politics is the art of the possible.

In 2003, Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. The only thing that makes this compromise possible at all is the narrow margin in the Senate ' and a bipartisan group of senators who want to see a forest bill become law.

Could a bill be passed that would give the environmental community everything it wants?

Not in this Congress. And probably not in this lifetime.

Over and over again in the debate over forest health and wildfire prevention we are told that everyone agrees on one thing: Small trees and brush must be removed from overgrown forests to prevent fires and to allow the forests to survive fires that do start.

The disagreements come over how and where this work is to be done.

The compromise bill would make some of this vital work possible, with some safeguards against logging big trees and some requirement that hazard reduction work take place near homes. It won't make everyone happy, but it will be better than nothing.

That's why they call it compromise.