Bush unveils plan to prevent wildfires

(The Daily Texan Online)

By Jennifer Loven

Associated Press

CENTRAL POINT, Ore. – Embarking on a three-day West-ern swing expected to haul in at least $5 million for Republican politicians, President Bush took a stand Thursday on one of the region’s thorniest issues by proposing that more logging in national forests would help prevent devastating wildfires.

Bush traveled from his Texas ranch to southwestern Oregon, near the California state line, for a briefing on local fires that have ravaged the area. On the way in, Air Force One passed low over the 471,000-acre Biscuit fire to give the president a view of the thick smoke from the state’s largest blaze in modern history. Even when the president landed, the stink from yet another fire – the Tiller blaze 45 miles to the north – hung in the air.

The president was then ferried to the still-smoldering Squires Peak fire for what his advisers billed a firsthand look at the dramatic difference made by the kinds of policies the president advocates.

Against that backdrop, Bush formally announced at a nearby fairground a plan to make it easier for timber companies to cut wood from fire-prone national forests. Several Western governors who have been pushing for just such changes came out for the event.

The proposals first outlined Wednesday prompted howls from environmentalists worried they would gut safeguards that have protected old-growth trees. But the Bush administration said changes are necessary to clear a decades-long buildup of highly flammable materials and lessen the risk of catastrophic burns.

Protesters gathered on the mountain road leading to Squires Peak. “More forest, less Bush,” read one sign.

“This is the second fire site I’ve been to this summer, and it’s the same story,” said Bush, surrounded by dead, blackened trees and his cowboy boots covered with ash. “Had we properly managed our forests, the devastation caused would not have been nearly as severe, and it’s a crying shame … What the critics need to do is come stand where I stand.”

Talking with firefighters still working on piles of embers, Bush said, “You guys see what good practices mean, what bad practices mean firsthand. We’re trying to bring common sense to forest policy.”

Firefighter Cody Goodnough replied, “That will make our job easier.”

In remarks to local and federal officials on the mountaintop, Bush criticized the past century’s policy of nearly complete fire suppression as shortsighted and dangerous.

Bush was rounding out his appearances in Oregon – a state he barely lost to Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election – with a fund-raising roundtable and dinner in Portland. Added to the state GOP’s $600,000 take was $300,000 for Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, one of the Democrats’ top targets, who was spending much of the day with Bush.

On Friday, Bush goes to California to headline three events expected to give Repub-lican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon’s campaign a much-needed $3 million boost. Another $1 million would go to the California Republican party.

The White House tried to put to rest rumors in California that Bush wanted to limit public appearances with Simon. The president will “proudly stand with Simon,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

This year’s wildfires across the West have renewed the perennial debate between conservationists – who prefer thinning only near property that has brush and small trees – and logging interests, who argue that decreasing fire risks requires cutting some larger trees in deeper woods.

Wildfires have burned nearly 6 million acres this summer from Alaska to New Mexico. Federal spending to combat wildfires could top $1.5 billion this year.

Nationwide, 190 million acres are considered at high risk, and Bush’s proposals would apply only to those areas.

A 2000 national fire plan already supports increased controlled burns and forest thinning, but Bush was urging even more aggressive efforts.

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