Saturday, August 16, 2008

Republicans want more aggressive forest thinning

SACRAMENTO — The state needs to be more aggressive in thinning out forests — and less concerned about conserving trees — if they are to contain wildfires, Republican lawmakers said Wednesday at a Capitol hearing of rural lawmakers.

The group, which included members of Congress, sent a letter urging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to resurrect last year's agreement with Nevada, which would require intensive logging in rural areas.

"We're asking him to do basically what he did last year for the people of the Tahoe area," said Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, the letter's author. "There he got together with the governor of Nevada and came up with a fire commission and report that has changed the way we look at fires and fire safety in the Tahoe Basin."

The Emergency California Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission Report recommended creating specific spaces between bushes and trees, which creates a landscape with a lesser chance of being overwhelmed by a lightening strike.

California is having what could be its most expensive firefighting season, having already spent $285 million in the past six weeks as firefighters struggle to control hundreds of hard-to-control blazes.

The problem, said Senator Dave Cox, R-Sacramento, is that the state's political leaders have been too reluctant to bring the tree population down.

"Because of these regulations, California is growing more timber than it is harvesting," Cox said, "the Advertisementrate is 170 percent and growing, and we certainly need to return to a more balanced, regulatory environment that encourages sound forest management."

Underbrush and crowding are the main culprit of wildfires, said Congressman John Doolittle, R-Granite Bay.

"A forest, in many ways, is just a gigantic version of a garden — it can't just be left to grow on its own or you'll face catastrophic consequences," he said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Sacramento, said the root of the problem is that "we are loving our forests to death."

"We don't want to see anything cleared and as a result Mother Nature comes in and clears out far more than is healthy for most forests or for us," he said.

A spokeswoman for the governor disputed the assertion that the administration hasn't done enough to contain wildfires.

"Under the governor's leadership, California is better prepared to fight fires and focuses more on fire prevention than ever before," said Lisa Page.

Environmental groups say that preventing wildfires is on page two of the Republican agenda — significantly behind the profit to be had by timber companies.

"When they say we haven't done enough logging and other clearing, it's an oversimplification of the problem," said Paul Mason, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club. "The important thing to realize is that fire is natural and we can't make it go away — figuring out how to live with it is the challenge."

Republicans opposed a 2004 bill by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, that would have increased the required amount of defensible space around a home from 30 to 100 feet.

"The real punch line here is that it was an important bill to make things safer, and these people voted against it," said Mason. "They're only looking to scapegoat now because they haven't done anything proactively."

One fire safety bill in the Legislature, SB1617, by Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, would charge $50 to homeowners in rural areas that fall in the state's firefighting responsibilities, which amounts to one-third of California and includes nearly 1 million homes, with thousands more being built and planned for fire-prone areas.

She projects the $50 fee would raise $45 million a year for fire protection. Her bill passed the state Senate and is awaiting consideration in the Assembly.

Rural counties and legislators object that their residents already pay extra for fire protection and shouldn't be taxed twice as they would under Kehoe's proposal.

Kehoe counters that California needs both her proposal and the insurance surcharge being negotiated by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders.

"We can't afford not to fight fires. Homes and lives are at stake," she said. "These fires are only going to become more frequent and more intense."

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