Partisan Firefighting

Who knew there was a Democratic and a Republican way to fight forest fires?

That's the impression one could get from a debate over President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative.

Most Republicans support it. Most Democrats don't.

The proposal, contained in a bill the House passed Tuesday, would reverse 100 years of discredited fire-prevention policy. Under the Smokey-Bear ethic, the Forest Service prevented forest fires, but did nothing about the buildup of underbrush, overgrowth, and dead trees that natural fires would have cleared away.

This combination ensured that when a fire did break out (or was set), it burned with even more intensity and caused greater damage than would otherwise have been the case.

Last year was the second worst on record. Fires burned nearly 7 million acres, destroyed 815 homes in 15 states, and killed 23 firefighters. The cost to the federal government: A scorching $1.6 billion.

The Healthy Forests Initiative aims to reduce the threat by allowing the thinning of some 20 million acres of national forest - cutting down small and medium-sized trees and clearing away dead trees and underbrush. Money for the program would come from letting private loggers do the thinning and sell the lumber they cut.

Most Democrats - as well as partisan environmentalists - say the plan is a cover for allowing logging of old-growth trees in remote areas instead of focusing on areas near homes. They point out that it has no money for fire prevention and does little to protect local communities.

Opponents also don't like the bill's streamlining of legal procedures in cases when environmentalists file lawsuits to prevent cutting. They point to a study showing that 95 percent of Forest Service projects were approved within 90 days.

The measure's future is uncertain in the Senate, where a similar bill went up in smoke last year. But there is room for compromise if both sides act in the public interest rather than out of ideological prejudice or with an eye toward raising campaign money.

As fire season approaches, the Senate needs to get on the stick. Lives, homes, and jobs are at stake.

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