Bush Tours Wildfires, Touts Forest Thinning Plan

REDMOND, Oregon, August 21, 2003 (ENS) - President George W. Bush says his Healthy Forests initiative is the kind of "commonsense policy" that can prevent the catastrophic forest fires plaguing the Western United States and urged Congress to pass the forest thinning plan. After taking a helicopter tour of wildfires in and nearby Oregon's Deschutes National Forest today, Bush said environmental review and litigation are needlessly delaying forest management projects that would reduce the threat of future wildfires.

"Congress needs to act," Bush said during a speech today in Redmond, Oregon. "People ought to understand up there in Washington that current law makes it too difficult to expedite the thinning of forests because it allows for the litigation process to delay progress and projects for years and years."

"That is a problem," said Bush. "And those delays, the endless litigation delays, endanger the health of our forests and the safety of too many of our communities.

Wildfires have burned some 2.4 million acres this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, compared to six million by this time last year.

Bush's Healthy Forests initiative, which has been adopted by congressional supporters as the basis for pending legislation, streamlines federal planning requirements for thinning forests on some 20 million acres of federal land and limits legal challenges to agency actions.

The plan passed the House in May and the Senate Agricultural Committee in July, but faces sharp criticism from some Senate Democrats and environmentalists who say it is little more than a giveaway to the timber industry.

It has the support of the timber and paper industries, who say it will reverse the trend of mismanagement of public lands by the federal government. Bush

President Bush, joined here by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, says his Healthy Forests initiative will put common sense back into the federal government's management of public lands. (Photo by Susan Sterner courtesy White House)
Bush said his plan is "not something that was invented in Washington, D.C."

"It is the collective wisdom of scientists, wildlife biologists, forestry professionals, and as importantly, the men and women who risk their life on an annual basis to fight fires," Bush said. "That is who I have been listening to."

The conditions of the nation's forests did not happen overnight, Bush said, and there are some 190 million acres of forests and woodlands at risk from catastrophic wild fire.

"A problem that has taken a long time to develop is going to take a long time to solve," said Bush, who defended the plan's provisions to limit administrative appeals, legal challenges and environmental review of forest thinning projects.

"We want people to have input," Bush said. "But we want people to understand that we're talking about the health of our forests, and if there is a high priority, we need to get after it before the forests burn and people lose life."

But critics contend it is the timber industry that is driving Bush's plan and say its revamping of judicial and environmental reviews cut out the public, are unnecessary and possibly illegal. They say the plan is doomed to fail because it targets scarce resources at federal lands for projects that will do little to help the communities most at risk from wild fires. wildfire

Sustained drought, poor management and limited snowpack has much of the nation's land in the West under threat of wildfire. (Photo by Bryan Day courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
Studies show that 85 percent of the land that surrounds communities most at risk is private, state, or tribal -- not federal.

"The President's plan does not address the heart of the problem," said Jim Furnish, former deputy chief of the National Forest System for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Only 20 percent of the acres burned in the last 12 years were in national forests.

"Any forest plan should focus first on protecting the areas immediately around cities and towns," says John Hummel, a city council member for the city of Bend, Oregon. "The President's plan does not do that."

Bush insists his plan will protect local communities and said his forest stewardship contracting policy is also benefiting the local economies of Western communities. The policy allows private firms to reap the financial benefits of the underbrush and timber they remove under contract.

Bush defended the practice and said paying private contractors for these projects "takes a little load off the taxpayer."

"The local community's tax base will get better when somebody spends the money they make from the thinning projects, and the forests are more healthy," he said. "Stewardship contracting makes sense. It is an integral part of our plan."

But to environmentalists and some Western local and state officials, it is an integral component of why Bush's plan is misguided.

Critics say the forest stewardship program is logging under the guise of wildfire management and believe the vagueness of President's plan and the broad authority it grants federal agencies will encourage logging of valuable timber, not the underbrush most in need of clearing. firefighters

The federal government spent at least $1.6 billion to suppress wild fires in 2002. (Photo by Karen Wattermaker courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
The administration is engaged in "a full court press within the bureaucracy to rewrite regulations against the public and the environment in favor of corporate interests," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen.

Logging large, old trees "flies in the face of sound forest science," said Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund's Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion program in Oregon.

"Numerous studies have shown that this kind of logging actually increases the risk of catastrophic fires," DellaSala said. "If the administration is serious about protecting people and forest resources, it needs to focus resources on brush clearing and thinning in the forests nearest communities and in tree plantations."

Today's trip by the President was the third in the past two weeks to combine campaign fund raising stops with events touting his environmental policies.

Some 2,000 protestors - criticizing the administration's environmental and economic policies along with the U.S. intervention in Iraq - greeted Bush today when he arrived at the University of Portland for a fund raising luncheon.

On Friday Bush will attend another fund raiser before visiting a Snake River dam to promote his efforts to protect and restore endangered salmon.