SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Sen. Dianne Feinstein blames environmental ally the Sierra Club for Congress' failure to pass legislation last month to thin national forests to reduce wildfire threats in the West.
Sierra Club President Carl Pope said Republican leaders are responsible, and a timber industry leader points the finger at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who he accused of "election year politics."
All sides agree it's unlikely that Congress will move in its lame duck session after Tuesday's general elections to seek consensus to reduce the threat of fires that have consumed an estimated 6.5 million acres across the nation this year.
"You have a very polarized community when it comes to fire and how they view fire," Feinstein said.
"The Sierra Club roasted me," she said.
The former mayor of San Francisco has averaged a 91 percent scorecard rating from the League of Conservation Voters the past six years, but confounds environmentalists by insisting that logging be used to help ease wildfire threats.
She said 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 Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Feinstein said she was close to securing a bipartisan agreement with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, that would have sacrificed some trees to reduce fuel loads and make 7 million acres of forests near urban areas safer from fires.
"I think the Sierra Club did it in to be honest with you. There was just real opposition," Feinstein told reporters after a speech to an environmental conference last week at Lake Tahoe.
Feinstein said the Sierra Club made it impossible for her to gather the support she needed among Democrats to cut off debate and force a vote.
"So the effort kind of collapsed," she said.
Chris West, vice president of the timber industry's American Forest Resource Council based in Portland, Ore., said Feinstein is partially right. But he puts the blame more squarely on Democratic leaders.
"From our perspective, the reason nothing moved in the Senate that was workable was because of Daschle. It was all election-year politics," West said.
Craig, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on forests and public lands, offers a similar account of the Senate's refusal to consider his amendment to a spending bill for the Interior Department that still needs congressional approval.
"The Dianne Feinsteins of this world have every reason to be frustrated and angry. I think she felt herself a friend of that organization only to have them bite her as hard as they did," Craig said.
"She kept going to her leadership and got nothing. In the end, Tom (Daschle) did not want to put his people at risk taking a tough vote — which was the right vote — on something the environmental people have so effectively polarized," he told The Associated Press this week.
Pope said 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 said GOP leaders refused to provide funding unless normal environmental reviews for projects outside those areas were suspended, too.
"Basically, they blackmailed the Senate. And we said, 'No, that blackmail is not acceptable.' So in that sense, yes Sen. Feinstein is correct" about the group's role in blocking legislation, he said.
Aides to Daschle said he was willing to expedite thinning, even in some areas outside "urban interface zones," but not with the prohibitions on legal challenges GOP leaders demanded.
"We agreed that some streamlining of the process makes sense, particularly if you focus most of the resources on thinning in the urban interface zone. But the notion of depriving folks of opportunities they have now for judicial review was going too far and something we were not prepared to support," said Eric Washburn, a senior legislative to Daschle.
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.
Pope said he doubts any new policy will be adopted during the "lame duck" session of Congress.
"I would think that what was driving people on both sides (last month) is they wanted to take something home to run on," he said.
Feinstein said she understands environmentalists are distrustful of proposals to use logging to reduce fire threats.
"What we really need to do is build confidence and work with environmentalists to try to come together, just as they have here," she said at Lake Tahoe where competing interests have united to work to restore the lake's clarity.
"This used to be very fractionated community. It is not so any more," she said.
Feinstein also criticized the Bush administration for failing to provide necessary funding.
"Grooming the forests has to become a major priority for this administration. To this date … it isn't."