Bush unveils 'Healthy Forests' plan
President says thinning necessary to reduce fire threat
CENTRAL POINT, Oregon (CNN) -- Generating criticism from environmentalists, President Bush Thursday announced a new initiative to allow more logging in national forests, a move that he said will curb the threat of wildfires.
"We need to thin," Bush said in a speech that followed a tour of some fire-ravaged land in southwestern Oregon. "We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense ... 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."
The "Healthy Forests" initiative calls on Congress to pass laws that would "expedite procedures for forest thinning and restoration projects" and "ensure the sustainable forest management and appropriate timber production."
Wildfires, the president said, have destroyed too much, and he criticized regulations that he said undermine effective management of federal lands.
"The forest policy of our government is misguided policy," Bush said. "It doesn't work."
Decrying "endless litigation," Bush said he wants to limit the "red tape" surrounding management of national forests.
"We'll make sure that people have their voice, but aren't able to tie it all up," Bush said.
Some environmental groups said the Bush proposal does little more than put the logging industry in charge of protecting the nation's wilderness areas from fire while ignoring the real needs of communities on forest edges.
This long, hot summer
The 2002 wildfire season has been one of the worst in modern history, torching 6.1 million acres so far.
Forestry officials said they believe the main culprit is a long-standing policy that called for protecting the forests at all costs -- no logging, and no fires to burn off dry brush and create natural burn lines that might stop the spread of wildfires.
The result, officials said, is over-populated forests with mounds of wildfire fuel -- underbrush and small trees -- on forest floors.
At the Biscuit fire complex in southern Oregon, Bush got a first-hand look at a fire that's burned since July 13, when a lightning strike touched off dry timber. Now 60-percent contained and battled in four zones, Biscuit has blackened almost a half-million acres and threatened hundreds of homes.
While forestry groups, the president and environmental groups agree that almost unlimited fuel is a serious problem -- one virtually untouched by a current policy of limited "prescribed burns" in areas deemed high risks for fire -- they seriously disagree on how to approach it. (Full story)
Bush wants to make it easier for loggers to thin out backcountry forests by easing regulatory restrictions and making it harder for environmentalists to stop or delay that work. Environmentalists and conservationists, however, say it's drought, and not environmental laws, that has created the current atmosphere.
"Wilderness and roadless areas are too valuable to be handed over to the logging industry in the name of 'fuel reduction,'" said Wilderness Society president William H. Meadows. "Environmental laws are not to blame for our fire problems. Eight out of ten Western fires start in roaded areas."
Meadows called Bush's plan "cynical politicking" and called for the federal government to "provide meaningful funding" for the Forest Service and set it free to focus "on the areas where our communities and forests intersect, not on increased logging far from homes."
Environmentalists call for alternate plan
The Wilderness Society joined with the Sierra Club and other groups Wednesday to release a $10 billion plan -- based on U.S. Forest Service research -- that they called "a blueprint for the Bush administration and the Forest Service."
In addition to making community protection the top firefighting priority, the environmental plan would increase the use of prescribed burns -- and naturally occurring, low-intensity burns -- to reduce fuel buildup.
"No community deserves to be left at risk of wildfire," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "The Forest Service should focus its people and resources on Community Protection Zones, not let them be diverted to low-priority backcountry projects."
A key element missing from Bush's proposals, according to J. Boone Kauffman of Oregon State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, is the concept of restoration.
"A century of fire suppression and misguided forest management has left many forests and their surrounding communities at risk," Kauffman said. "We need to proactively protect and restore our forests -- we can't simply be reactive."
Bush's trip to Oregon included some fund raising. He was expected to raise $1 million for Oregon Republicans and the re-election campaign of Sen. Gordon Smith, who spent much of the day with the president.
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