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Bush Signs New 'Healthy Forests' Plan - 2003-12-03

President Bush is changing the way the U.S. manages its forests. It is the country's biggest forestry reform in more than 25 years.

President Bush says his healthy forests plan is a common sense approach to reducing the threat of destructive wildfires by clearing more underbrush in areas at risk.

"Overgrown brush and trees can serve as kindling, turning small fires into large, raging blazes that burn with such intensity that the trees literally explode," the president said.

Congress passed the president's plan following two years of catastrophic fires in western states that burned more than four million hectares of land. This year's California fires alone cost $250 million and claimed the lives of 22 people.

The president's plan aims to shorten response times to disease and insect infestations as well as restoring degraded forests on private lands to promote endangered species.

Signing the bill into law Wednesday, Mr. Bush said the measure will shorten the review process for legal challenges to forestry decisions by ordering courts to consider the long-term environmental impact of not carrying out the decision.

"It places reasonable time limits on litigation after the public has had an opportunity to comment and a decision has been made," he said. "No longer will essential forest health projects be delayed by lawsuits that drag on year after year after year."

Critics of the plan say shortening that review process weakens their ability to use the courts to challenge federal forestry policy.

The plan pays private loggers to clear undergrowth on public lands near houses or water supplies at risk for catastrophic fires. Environmentalists fear the timber industry will use that access to harvest bigger trees as well.