The forest plan was approved by the Senate late Thursday, 80-14, as Democrats joined Republicans in support of a program they said was clearly needed after years of devastating wildfires across the West. The dry underbrush and dead trees have turned some forests into tinderboxes, they said.
In the House, meanwhile, lawmakers on Thursday approved, 216-205, a record $2.9 billion spending plan for forest firefighting and fire protection. The Senate will take up the measure next week. The money includes $800 million in direct firefighting money, 60 percent more than the current budget.
The deadly fires that this week have killed at least 20, blackened more than 740,000 acres in southern California, destroying 2,800 homes, added new momentum to the forest management legislation, a modified version of President Bush's "healthy forests" initiative that until recently had been stalled in the Senate.
"There is a tremendous lesson in these fires, that the land has to be managed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the compromise bill.
Mr. Bush said he hoped the Senate and House could work out their differences quickly and give him a bill to sign into law. The administration has expressed support for both the House and Senate versions, calling them a recipe for healthier forests.
But some Senate Democrats predicted negotiations with the House were likely to be difficult.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a strong supporter of the Senate-passed bill, said there were "huge differences" between what the Senate approved and the legislation passed by the House in May.
The Senate bill would limit thinning activities to 20 million at-risk acres and require that half of the $760 million authorized for the program be used in forests near populated areas. The rest would be used in high-risk forests, watersheds, endangered species habitat or forests with insect infestation.
The House bill would cover 35 million acres and provides no government funds or priorities for where the thinning should be conducted, including old-growth and roadless forests. While the Senate specifically included provisions to protect large, old-growth trees, the House has no such safeguards.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the Resources Committee that crafted the House-passed bill, welcomed Thursday's Senate action. But he added that "we still have work to do" in crafting a final bill, suggesting that the battle was far from over.
The Senate and House bills would allow forest thinning without environmental reviews and limit the ability of opponents to challenge the cutting plans in court. The Senate bill would require court challenges to be filed within 15 days. It also would impose a 45-day limit on a judge's ability to temporarily block a project.
Environmentalists have accused lawmakers of using the Western wildfires to open federal forests to new logging, including cutting mature trees. But they also acknowledge that if a bill is to become law, they prefer the Senate measure.
"We don't want to step one sawtooth toward the House bill, or the forests will really be in trouble," said Jay Watson, director of wild lands and fire programs for the Wilderness Society in California.
Supporters of the bill rejected the environmentalists' criticism.
"For those who have been so worried that we're going to log the forests to death, they have watched them burn to death," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. "It's high time we fix it."
"This finally opens the door to significant land management reforms," said Domenici, whose state also has seen a string of damaging wildfires.
Added Wyden: "Even with respect to the amount of acreage to be thinned, it is a fraction of the work necessary in high risk areas."
A proposal to limit the program to five years, offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was defeated, 61-31. Domenici said the job of improving forest health to significantly reduce the threat of wildfires could take 15 years or more.
While the Senate vote took place as California was hard-hit by fires, 2003 has actually been a below-average year for forest blazes. To date, there have been 55,914 fires across 3,500,711 acres — well below the 10-year average of 74,981 fires and 4,342,418 acres.