WASHINGTON (AP) – Destructive blazes in California helped break a three-year logjam in Congress and deliver to President Bush legislation he touted as a fix to annual waves of wildfires throughout the West.

“It’s heartening to see that our at-risk lands and communities are on their way to enjoying the protection they deserve,” Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who sponsored the House version of the legislation, said in a statement. “It’s a rare occasion when a president has an opportunity to sign an environmental protection measure of this magnitude into law.”

McInnis compared the measure to President Theodore Roosevelt’s call for the establishment of the National Forest system 99 years ago this week. Critics, however, decried it as a payback to the timber industry, which will get greater access to pristine stands of old-growth trees.

The Senate passed the bill by voice vote on Nov. 21 less than an hour after the House approved it, 286-140. Bush was signing it in a ceremony Wednesday at the Agriculture Department.

After Congress approved the bill, Bush said it would “help us maintain our national treasure, our forests, begin providing a commonsense strategy and making sure that the fire hazards that we’ve seen over the last couple of summers are mitigated as best as possible.”

For three years, a deadlock in the Senate had prevented the passage of legislation intended to speed forest treatment. But 15 raging fires driven by Santa Ana winds through Southern California prompted Democrats to compromise on the bill. The wildfires burned more than 750,000 acres, destroyed 3,640 homes, 33 businesses and 1,141 other structures.

Even after the California fires, 2003 was slightly below average in terms of acres burned and nowhere near the severity of the 2000 and 2002 fire seasons. In the past year, 3.8 million acres have burned across the country. Twenty-eight firefighters died battling the blazes, according to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

The bill – the first major forest management legislation in a quarter-century – is similar to Bush’s “Healthy Forests Initiative,” which he proposed while touring a charred forest in Oregon in August 2002. The measure streamlines the approval process for projects to cut excess trees out of thick, overgrown forests or stands of trees killed by insect infestation.

Other elements of the president’s proposal had already been enacted through administrative actions.

The Bush administration estimates roughly 190 million acres are at risk for a severe fire, an area the size of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined.

Sean Cosgrove, a forest expert with the Sierra Club, said some good may come from the increased spending on forest treatment, but there is bound to be unnecessary logging in roadless areas and wildlife habitat as the timber companies try to harvest valuable old-growth trees.

“The timber industry fought real hard for this bill for a reason and it’s not because they want to remove brush and chaparral,” Cosgrove said. “Through and through this thing is about increasing commercial logging with less environmental oversight.”

Since 1999, the timber industry has contributed $14.1 million to political campaigns, 80 percent of it going to Republicans, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. Bush has received $519,350 from the industry in that period.

The timber industry also spent $23.8 million on lobbying efforts since 2000, according to figures compiled by Political Money Line.

The measure would authorize $760 million a year for thinning projects on 20 million acres of federal land, a $340 million increase. At least half of all money spent on those projects must be near homes and communities.

The bill also creates a major change in the way that federal courts consider legal challenges of tree-cutting projects.

Judges would have to weigh the environmental consequences of inaction and the risk of fire in cases involving thinning projects. Any court order blocking such projects would have to be reconsidered every 60 days.

The bill is H.R. 1904.

On the Net:

White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org

AP-ES-12-03-03 0933EST

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