MEDFORD, Ore., Aug. 22 (UPI) -- After flying low over the smoke-covered fire-ravaged forests of southern Oregon aboard Air Force One Thursday, President Bush issued a clarion call for an overhaul of federal forestry regulations to speed up the removal of choking underbrush that each summer fuels devastating wildfires in the drought-stricken western mountains.
Speaking to a receptive crowd in fire-scarred southern Oregon as he began a three-day fundraising swing through the West, the president announced his administration's intentions to cut through red tape and knock down existing legal roadblocks to fuel-reduction programs that often involve the private sector and have raised the suspicions of environmentalists opposed to increased logging in the nation's wilderness areas.
"If you have a good forest policy, it will yield a better economy," Bush said in rallying the appreciative residents of the rural region who filled the Jackson County Fairgrounds. "The fires that have devastated the West have also created a drag on our economy. It costs money to fight these fires. It means people lose property and opportunities are lost."
"We have got to change the policy, starting with setting priorities right off the bat and getting after those areas that are dangerous to communities, dangerous to habitat and to recreational areas," said the president, looking cool and relaxed in an open-collar green shirt that contrasted noticeably with the intensity of his delivery. "There are some high-priority areas where we need to declare emergencies and get to thinning now before it is too late."
Wildfires this season have burned more than 6.1 million acres of drought-parched land compared to the 10-year average of 2.8 million acres. The cost for firefighting this year is expected to exceed $1.5 billion.
The largest fire of the year, the 490,383-acre Biscuit Fire, continued burning in southern Oregon and was only 60-percent contained.
Legal challenges to forest thinning from environmentalists have been blamed for the slow progress in reducing the fire danger in the West, although the green community takes exception to the characterization that it is using the courts to block projects merely on general principle.
In a counteroffensive that began earlier this week, a number of national organizations pointed to a General Accounting Office study that found the number of challenges to treatment proposals to be relatively small. They also criticized the Bush proposal as being aimed more at increasing logging opportunities in the remote deep woods rather than thinning out non-commercial brush and saplings in areas near homes.
"The president's so-called Healthy Forests Initiative exploits the fear of fires in order to gut environmental protections and boost commercial logging," concluded Amy Mall, a forestry policy expert with the National Resources Defense Council. "Instead of focusing on fire-proofing communities, the Bush plan would emphasize logging large and medium trees in remote areas of national forests which does little to protect human life and property."
Supporters of mixing logging with fuel reduction argue there are too many acres and not enough money for the Forest Service to do the job without the participation of the private sector. At a cost of several hundred dollars per acre, timber companies are allowed to harvest a certain number of larger trees if they get rid of the flammable brush and smaller trees that have no commercial value.
While environmentalists may be leery of the motives of the Healthy Forest Initiative, the president said earlier in the day that the consequences of not "getting after those areas" that require thinning were too dire not to act.
"What the critics need to do is come and see firsthand the effects of bad forest policy," Bush said as he visited the site of the Squires Fire earlier in the day. "And by the way, there's nothing wrong with people being able to earn a living off of effective forest management. There are a lot of people in this part of the state that can't find work because we don't properly manage our forests."
Environmentalists insist they are all for prudent forest management, but don't see the need to tear up long-standing environmental laws that would prevent forest treatment projects from turning into logging ventures that are railroaded through the approval process and leave opponents with no recourse.
Bush told his Jackson County audience that he did not intend to take away citizens' access to the legal system, but there were currently "too many lawsuits and too much litigation."
(Reported by Hil Anderson)