Bush Proposes Forest Management Changes to Mitigate Wildfires

Amy Goldstein and Rene Sanchez (Washington Post) (T

MEDFORD, Ore.–President Bush stood on the burnt soil at the top of Squires Peak, surrounded by a moonscape of charred trees, and peeled a piece of blackened bark off a fir. Then he strode across a logging road to a nearby area that also has been victimized this summer by the largest fire in Oregon history.

But on this 400-acre swatch, a lumber company had thinned out the national forest last year. And just weeks after the flames receded, the forest floor already was coming back to life: Young vegetation sprouted at the base of a few trees.

Bush’s tour Thursday morning through the ash and acrid air of southern Oregon’s “Biscuit Fire” was designed to provide dramatic visual evidence to reinforce the White House’s case for a new forest-management policy that the president proposed Thursday.

In essence, the plan calls for clearing more trees from fire-prone forest. It rests on the controversial premise that too much regulation, too many lawsuits and too little commercial thinning of national forests has produced the catastrophic fires that are raging across the American West this year. It would require Congress to rewrite a major environmental law adopted 32 years ago.

“The forest policy of our government is misguided policy. It doesn’t work,” Bush told a cheering crowd at a county fairgrounds just after his tour. “We need to thin…. We need to understand, if you let kindling build up, and there’s a lightning strike, you’re going to get yourself a big fire.”

But as Bush unveiled his proposal, environmental groups said it would be a political gift to the timber industry that will undermine a consensus that Western leaders reached in May on treating forests and preventing wildfires.

That 10-year strategy, developed by Western governors with the help of a wide range of interest groups, doesn’t include an overhaul of environmental laws. It makes clearing small trees and brush on the increasingly urban edge of many forests a priority. Unlike the White House proposal, it wouldn’t advocate logging large trees deep in the wilderness.

“It’s perplexing that Bush’s first action in the name of what we came up with is to undertake something that wasn’t part of it–namely, the suspension of environmental laws,” said Greg Aplet, an ecologist for the Wilderness Society.

James Lyons, who oversaw the Forest Service during the Clinton administration, said Bush’s proposals to limit public appeals of logging projects would be a “draconian” step that isn’t necessary to improve the health of forests. Lyons said that, while there’s merit to enlisting the help of timber companies to clear dangerous forest underbrush–and giving them access to larger, profitable trees in return–such work must be closely monitored.

“If you invite the timber industry in to do more of this, but then take away the regulations that provide balance,” he said, “it’s no different than having an accounting firm act as a consultant to a company and its accountant, and we’ve been seeing what that has caused.”

Bush, and a cadre of administration officials who flew here to begin lobbying for the White House plan, adamantly rejected such arguments. They argued that the environmental damage of clearing more land would be far less than the massive harm caused by runaway wildfires: destruction of wildlife habitats, air pollution, disease and insect infestation in dead forests, and deterioration of rivers and watersheds.

Asked atop the fire-stricken mountain whether the policy changes would lead to a substantial increase in logging on federal lands, Bush replied: “What the critics need to do is come and stand right where I stand.

“There’s nothing wrong with people being able to earn a living off of effective forest management,” he said. Later, in his speech, he decried the harm large fires cause local economies.

Wildfires are ravaging the West with a fury not seen in decades. So far this year, more than 6 million acres of wilderness have been scorched–twice the average. Firefighters have contained more than 500 large blazes in recent months, but 31 others are still burning across more than a million acres.

The onslaught isn’t a fluke. The West had a similarly disastrous wildfire season two summers ago. And all the players in Western land debates agree that the nation’s forests are too packed with the kind of underbrush that turns small sparks–from lightning, or campfires–into raging blazes.

But federal officials, environmental groups and political leaders around the West have struggled to reach new agreement on how to clear fire hazards from forests. For decades, the policy had been to suppress all wildfires as soon as they ignited, but that’s left forests overloaded with brush.

The general pact that Western leaders and many environmental groups endorsed earlier this year didn’t suggest a rollback of environmental laws, or advocate intensive new logging, officials said, because all sides feared that either step could only further tangle urgently needed forest-thinning projects in political fights, and more delays.

Western leaders also had urged that decisions on forests not be made in Washington, because no two forests are alike–habitats in some might not be harmed by more logging, but could be ruined in others.

“Yes, there is a lot of work to do,” Aplet said. “But it took us a long time to get here, and it’s going to take a long time to get out.”

Bush’s visit here was the first stop on a three-day trip away from the Crawford, Texas, ranch where he’s based this month. The trip is largely built around fund-raising appearances on behalf of a trio of Republican candidates in the November elections.

On Thursday, he helped to raise an estimated $900,000 at a $1,000-per-ticket reception In Portland for Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who’s being challenged for a second term by Oregon’s secretary of state, Bill Bradbury. On Friday and Saturday, he’ll conduct three fund-raisers for California’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, Bill Simon, before traveling to New Mexico to campaign in a close congressional race.

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