Bush Fire Plan Draws Critics, Protests

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 23, 2002 (ENS) - Officials from the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, lined up yesterday in Washington to offer support for the Bush administration's new forest fire management initiative. In Portland, Oregon, thousands of protesters assembled as well, picketing against the president's proposal during his tour of fire scorched Squires Peak, and again outside the hotel where he spoke at a Republican fundraiser.

tree sitter

A tree sitter unfurled a protest banner in Portland this morning. (All photos courtesy Portland Independent Media Center except where noted)
At least five people were arrested last night as an estimated 3,000 protesters demonstrated outside the Hilton Portland and Executive Tower Hotel in Portland, Oregon where President George W. Bush spoke in support of Oregon Senator Gordon Smith.

Not all of those assembled were protesting the new Bush forest plan - many were there to speak out against the administration's stance on Iraq - but dozens carried placards calling Bush a "timber puppet," and warning that his new forest plan puts loggers ahead of trees.

In Medford, Oregon, where Bush toured the devastation left by the Squires Peak fire, a peaceful crowd held placards and chanted slogans asking Bush "please don't cut our trees down!"

The Bush plan, dubbed the "Healthy Forests" initiative, would reduce or remove environmental restrictions on forest management projects aimed at reducing wildfire risk, including controlled burns, clearing of underbrush, and forest thinning - a process that often resembles commercial logging.

"We must be active in our management of our forests," President Bush said. "In order to effect our healthy forest policy, we must cut through the red tape and endless litigation that blocks efforts to restore forest health."

Bush

President Bush tours the Squires Peak Fire Area with Ron Wenker of the Medford Bureau of Land Management Properties District. (Photo courtesy The White House)
In Medford, Bush used the aftermath of the Squires Peak fire, which burned both thinned and untouched forest areas, to highlight how a thinned forest could better resist the effects of wildfire. In the area that had not been thinned, the scorched earth was sterilized by high heat, and all the trees were dead.

But in the area where thinning had occurred, green plants were already beginning to emerge from the soil beneath living trees, one month after the fire.

"A thinning project to prevent catastrophic fire in the area where we were just standing was proposed six years ago," Bush told the crowd at the scene. "Yet, because of burdensome regulatory hurdles and meritless appeals and litigation, only a very small portion of this acreage was approved for thinning before the fires came through."

In fact, just 400 acres of a planned 22,000 acre thinning project at Squires Peak had been completed before lightning sparked a fire in July.

pepper spray

Police used pepper spray to deter protestors in Portland Thursday evening.
Fuel loads on many forest acres are now dangerously high due to years of misguided fire suppression. This year, out of control wildfires have burned thousands of acres, destroyed dozens of homes and businesses, and forced the temporary evacuations of thousands of residents and tourists.

By clearing out brush, downed trees and thickets of small trees, fire risk can be reduced without necessarily harming the overall health of the forest. According the figures provided by the Bush administration, many ponderosa pine forests are 15 times denser than they were a century ago - where 25 to 35 trees once grew on each acre of forest, now more than 500 trees are crowded together in unhealthy conditions.

Conservation groups say they do not oppose forest thinning projects aimed at protecting homes and communities, and in fact, few such projects are challenged by environmental appeals or lawsuits. But under the Bush proposal, thinning projects could be undertaken across thousands of acres of forest, far from human habitation - and the projects would not be limited to clearing brush and small trees.

The Healthy Forests initiative proposes to compensate timber companies for performing forest management projects including clearing brush and small trees, by allowing the companies to also cut down large, valuable trees on public lands.

roadblock

In Medford, several protestors temporarily blocked a road during the president's visit.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and Council on Environmental Quality chair James Connaughton joined President Bush in Medford to offer a united administrative front in support of the new initiative.

"This initiative is the right plan for a critical time in forest health management," Veneman said. "The President's initiative will enable federal, state and local governments to move ahead much more quickly on the critical mission of reducing the buildup of excess fuel on public lands."

Conservation groups argue that drought - not delays in forest thinning projects - are behind this year's record fire season.

"While this administration claims that fuel reduction projects are being stalled by appeals and lawsuits, the General Accounting Office recently investigated all Forest Service fuel reduction projects for fiscal year 2001 and found that of the 1,671 projects, not one had been litigated and only one percent of the projects had been appealed," noted Matthew Koehler of the Native Forest Network.

Earlier this week, a coalition on conservation groups offered their own plan to reduce fire risks, focused on protecting communities.

welcome

Bush was greeted in Medford by supporters as well as critics.
The Community Fire Protection Plan, backed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council, among others, would reduce fuel loads around buildings, fireproof structures, increased prescribed burn projects, and maintain legal safeguards against logging projects disguised as forest fire management.

"A program of community protection and restoration of natural fire cycles in the backcountry will safeguard peoples' homes, preserve wildlife and forest habitat, prevent catastrophic wildfires, and save taxpayer dollars," said WWF forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala. "It's winners all around."

Conservation groups also support a 10 year consensus plan reached in May 2002 with 17 Western governors, and backed by the Bush administration - though not yet implemented. The new Healthy Forests Initiative claims to implement "core components" of this national fire plan, such as encouraging local collaboration on thinning, planned burns and forest restoration projects.

child

A young protestor in Medford.
But Dr. Gregory Aplet, a forest ecologist who helped develop the 10 year strategy on behalf of The Wilderness Society, notes that all parties to the plan agreed that its goals of science based forest management "could be achieved without any change to existing law."

"The President's proposal would waive the National Environmental Policy Act - the very foundation of environmental protections in this country - as well as other important environmental laws," Aplet said. "This is diametrically opposed to the substance of the original plan and would severely undermine its implementation, and increase polarization and controversy over federal fire policy."

More information on the President's Healthy Forest Initiative is available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/healthyforests/toc.html