A not-so-natural disaster befell many Western states this summer massive forest fires but that fact hasn't sparked the Senate to find a compromise among several different measures aimed at curbing future fires in national forests.
The senators must act soon to help the National Forest Service speed up its removal of fire-spreading plants and organic debris from an estimated 10 million acres of forests at risk.
One hang-up in the debate came in July when Senate majority leader Tom Daschle gave his home state of South Dakota an exemption to some environmental restrictions on forest cleanups. Now many Western states want a similar type of provision.
And in August, President Bush proposed streamlining the legal process of deciding which forests to thin of fire-fueling undergrowth. He also wants to let timber companies, rather than taxpayers, pay for the cleanup by buying federal rights to cut a certain number of the thicker trees in the endangered forests (see story, page 1).
Big blazes in the West this year and in 2000, made worse by drought, have forced the federal government to rethink a century-long practice of suppressing such fires, which only left a buildup of forest debris.
Finding new ways to manage the national forests will require a complicated compromise that cuts through a distrust between wilderness-seeking environmentalists, who want no older trees cut, and timber companies.
Essential to any compromise is to let each National Forest Service office have enough freedom to choose the best solution for local needs, and to be able to act quickly so the West doesn't face more out-of-control blazes.
National forests aren't just parks, although many Americans use them for that. They can be managed for sustainable cutting, rather than treated as "pristine" wilderness, which most of them have not been for hundreds of years. New research indicates native Americans regularly burned much of the continent's forests in their own form of ecomanagement.
The Senate needs to act to protect Americans living near the forests.