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Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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WASHINGTON -- The California wildfires make an airtight case for President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative -- and Congress should waste no time in passing it.

Decades of failed forest management policy have left our national forests unnaturally dense, diseased and at extreme risk of catastrophic fire.

As California recovers from its 750,000-acre catastrophe, Americans should realize that the U.S. Forest Service lists 70 million acres at "extreme risk" and 120 million acres as suffering "unnatural risk" of devastating fires.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act will help quell this risk by modernizing policies that have not been updated in more than a quarter-century -- cutting through bureaucratic red-tape and aggressively reducing the massive fuel loads that threaten our forests.

The Forest Service, handcuffed by restrictive rules and frivolous lawsuits, has been unable to manage forests effectively to prevent catastrophic fires. The service dedicates an alarming 40 percent of its resources to the managing process, paperwork and responding to litigation. Many Forest Service thinning and fuel-reduction initiatives require at least five alternative analyses, creating bottlenecks that can stall critical actions by two years or more. The service's efforts are further hampered by an endless stream of appeals from environmental zealots.

In California alone, such appeals slowed 66 percent of all forest fuels- reduction efforts in the past two years, according to the watchdog General Accounting Office.

Unlike "natural" fires that thin brush and provide for biological regeneration, "catastrophic" fires decimate everything in their path.

They spew dangerous particulates into the air, contaminate drinking water supplies, rape the soil of nutrients, and scorch wildlife and endangered species' habitats.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act will not give timber companies carte blanche to log in national forests.

Logging operations today are a mere 10 percent of what they were 20 years ago. The science of forestry has changed; vast improvements have allowed scientists to treat forests with surgical precision, removing disease and insect-infested trees. Our knowledge of forest fuels and fires also has improved dramatically, as has our capacity to influence them.

Environmental groups should abandon the heated rhetoric of the 1960s and join us in supporting modern new measures to protect both our forests and the thriving communities in their midst.

Statistics show that $1 spent on wildfire prevention saves more than $6 on firefighting.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act immediately authorizes preventive treatments for 20 million of the nation's most at-risk forest acres.

The House and the Senate have passed differing versions of this legislation. Now we must forge a compromise for the president to sign.

Pombo, R-Tracy, is chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee.

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