WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said Monday he has introduced a bill aimed at improving federal response to damage caused by wildfire and other catastrophes. Smith's bill builds on legislation introduced this month by Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash.
Both are aimed at speeding projects to log dead timber and plant new trees after storms and wildfires — particularly in the wake of the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, where delayed logging has set off an ongoing controversy over what to do about dead and burned trees in national forests.
"Recent experiences in Oregon demonstrate that we need a new approach to restoring our forests from the ashes," Smith said in a news release. "Black forests do not help fish, wildlife, water quality or recreation. To achieve these goals, we need to keep Oregon's forests green."
Environmentalists said the bill offers little improvement over the Walden-Baird measure — which they say would weaken public participation and oversight of logging following fires and other natural disturbances.
"It's clear that the Forest Service has all the authority they need to do responsible fuel reduction" after a fire, said Sean Cosgrove, a forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club.
"They just need to have the direction from Congress to do that, and they need to place their money where it will do the most good — which is reducing fuels (such as small trees and underbrush) around communities," Cosgrove said. "Trying to create new avenues for salvage logging large trees is just going to create more controversy and leave good projects undone."
Smith said his bill, dubbed the Forests for Future Generations Act, would hasten the federal response to catastrophic events by requiring prompt evaluations of forest damage and providing quickened timelines for rehabilitation projects.
Smith's bill also would encourage the timber industry and environmentalists to try to resolve disputes through mediation rather than court action that can cause years of delay.
Both bills incorporate guidance from the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, the landmark forestry bill that is intended to speed forest recovery projects.
"An emergency does not end when a fire is contained," Smith said. "With bugs, disease and deterioration fighting against burnt trees, the emergency is not truly over until the land is healed and on its way to becoming a forest again."
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, said his Portland-based group, which represents the timber industry, supports both bills.
"We support giving the federal agencies tools to expedite restoration and recovery of devastated forest ecosystems," he said. The Smith bill "takes basically the same tack as the Walden-Baird bill, and we support Congress moving this legislation," West said.
A public hearing on the Smith bill is likely to be scheduled early next year, his office said. A hearing on the Walden-Baird bill is scheduled Dec. 7 before the House Agriculture Committee.