Bush Signs Wildfire Bill

President Bush signed legislation Wednesday aimed at curbing destruction from wildfires like the fall blazes that wiped out thousands of homes in California.

"With the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, we will help to prevent catastrophic wildfires," Mr. Bush said in a signing ceremony at the Agriculture Department. He was joined by firefighters who fought the Western blazes.

"We're proud to be standing with them up here," the president said. He said wildfires had destroyed 11 million acres over the last two years, and killed 22 people in Southern California this year alone.

The White House describes the measure, which includes a quicker federal approval process for clearing so-called overgrowth, as a "common sense law." But some environmental groups call it a payback to the timber industry, which will get greater access to pristine stands of 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," said Sean Cosgrove, a forest expert with the Sierra Club. "Through and through this thing is about increasing commercial logging with less environmental oversight."

The Senate passed the bill by voice vote on Nov. 21 less than an hour after the House approved it, 286-140.

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

The bill — the first major forest management legislation in a quarter-century — is similar to Mr. Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative," which he proposed while touring a charred forest in Oregon in August 2002. 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.

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. Mr. 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.