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Feinstein Blames Sierra Club For Thinning Bill Failure

California Senator Dianne Feinstein is blaming the Sierra Club for Congress´ failure to pass legislation last month to thin national forests and reduce wildfire threats in the West.

Sierra Club President Carl Pope, in turn, says Republican leaders are responsible. And a timber industry leader points the finger at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, accusing the Democratic leader of “election year politics.”

All sides agree it´s unlikely that Congress will act before adjournment to seek consensus on reducing the threat of wildfires, such as those that charred about 6.5 million acres across the nation this year.

Feinstein, the former Democratic mayor of San Francisco, has averaged a 91 percent scorecard rating from the League of Conservation Voters the past six years. But she has confounded environmentalists by insisting that logging be used to help ease wildfire threats.

She says she will press the Senate to hold hearings early next year and that she will attempt to build support among conservationists and others for an emergency program she hopes to develop with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.

Feinstein says she was close to securing a bipartisan agreement with Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig that would have sacrificed some trees to reduce fuel loads and made seven million acres of forests near urban areas safer from fires.

But Feinstein says, “I think the Sierra Club did it in.” She says the Sierra Club made it impossible for her to gather the support she needed among Democrats to cut off debate and force a vote.

Chris West of the timber industry´s American Forest Resource Council based in Portland, Ore., says Feinstein is partially right. But he puts the blame more squarely on Democratic leaders. He says the reason nothing moved in the Senate was because of Daschle didn´t want to expose fellow Democrats to a controversial vote. “It was election-year politics,” he said.

The Sierra Club´s Pope says there was agreement on a plan to do emergency thinning in as much as 23 million acres the Forest Service identified as overstocked forests near homes, known as “urban interface” areas. But he says GOP leaders refused to provide funding unless normal environmental reviews for projects outside those areas were suspended, too.

Aides to Daschle say he was willing to expedite thinning, even in some areas outside urban interface zones, but not with the prohibitions on legal challenges G.O.P leaders demanded.

The conflict centers on disagreement over the amount of logging that should be allowed to remove unnaturally high levels of brush and small trees that have resulted from decades of suppressing fires. In the past, fires periodically cleared forests of such undergrowth.

Critics say the thinning programs are abused to remove larger, commercial-sized timber and, in some cases, increase fire risks. Feinstein says she understands environmentalists are distrustful of proposals to use logging to reduce fire threats. She says her goal is to build confidence and work with environmentalists as well as members of both parties to try to find some common ground.