- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

CENTRAL POINT, Ore. President Bush yesterday said a relaxation of logging rules that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle recently secured for South Dakota should be extended to the rest of America, a move opposed by the Democratic leader.
"My attitude is: If it's good enough for that part of South Dakota, it's good enough for Oregon," Mr. Bush told a cheering crowd of loggers, ranchers and farmers here.
Knowing laughter rose from the crowd as soon as the president broached the subject of Mr. Daschle's quiet move to exempt a timber sale in his home state from all environmental regulations and court appeals. The move last month was first reported by The Washington Times on July 24.
Although the president did not mention Mr. Daschle by name, he said he recently signed a supplemental budget bill that contained the exemption to a ban on thinning forests of dead trees.
"The Black Hills National Forest, east of here, got some treatment about how to thin, how to make sure that that forest was well preserved," said Mr. Bush, adding that other states deserve equal treatment.
Although the president insisted "this isn't a chance for one political party to get an upper hand on another political party," the White House was privately delighted that Mr. Daschle provided political cover for the president to overturn what he considered onerous environmental regulations.
"The forest policy of our government is misguided policy," he said in a rustic arena that resembled an oversized warehouse. "It doesn't work.
"We need to thin," he added. "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."
Although Mr. Daschle opposes extending the South Dakota exemption to other states, the House and Senate will begin moving legislation containing similar exemptions when Congress returns from the August recess. Both chambers began drafting the legislation after last month's story in The Times.
"We've got to understand that it makes sense to clear brush," Mr. Bush said. "It makes sense to encourage people to make sure that the forests not only are healthy from disease, but are healthy from fire."
He added: "We haven't done that in the past. We just haven't done it, and we're now paying the price."
James L. Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, agreed.
"Our environmental laws are not supposed to wreak environmental havoc, and that's what some of them are doing," he said. "This fire season is one of the worst in modern history.
Wildfires in the West have burned more than 6 million acres of forest this year an area the size of New Hampshire and twice the annual average. They have destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and killed more than 20 firefighters.
Mr. Bush got a bird's-eye view of one of those fires yesterday when Air Force One flew low and banked over a blaze on Squires Peak in nearby Ruch. He later was driven up the smoke-shrouded slope on a dirt road.
After a walking tour of the devastated area, he was asked about critics who insist his proposal to thin the forests would "cause a drastic increase in commercial logging."
"What the critics need to do is come and stand right where I stand," the president said. "What the critics need to do is come and see firsthand the effects of bad forest policy."
He added that an increase in logging would help the sagging economy.
"There's nothing wrong with people being able to earn a living off of effective forest management," he said. "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."
Surveying the scorched trees, Mr. Bush said: "It's a crying shame."
The president's proposal, which follows the legislative precedent set by Mr. Daschle, was praised by Western lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but criticized by environmentalists who hope to block implementation of the plan on Capitol Hill.
"This plan comes straight from corporate timber interests, which have yet to encounter a question to which more logging isn't the answer," said Mark Shaffer, senior vice president of programs for Defenders of Wildlife. "Past logging of large, healthy, fire-resistant trees is a major reason some forests are full of fire-prone smaller trees and brushy understory."
Mike Anderson, spokesman for the Wilderness Society, said the plan is too focused on overriding environmental laws and eliminating public participation, which Mr. Daschle has said is the cornerstone of his state's exemption.
"Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to be missing an historic opportunity to forge a public consensus on how to deal with wildfire prevention," Mr. Anderson said in an analysis of the proposal.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said she hopes environmentalists will recognize the severity of the problem and the need to cut trees. Mr. Bush's proposal, she said, adds credibility to the seriousness of the forest fire problem.
"Thinning is probably the greatest source of apprehension among environmentalists, but I strongly believe that we can find an accommodation to do this and I hope to meet with both the National Forest Service and leaders of major environmental organizations to discuss this further," Mrs. Feinstein said.
"If there ever was an issue on which we should all be on the same page, this is it, because the increased catastrophic fire risk should be of serious concern to all Americans, particularly in the Western United States," she said.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said cumbersome regulations prevent the government from maintaining healthy forests.
"Inflexible opposition to thinning plans by a small minority promised to delay forest-protection efforts for months, even years," Mr. Kyl said. "With many forests including those in Arizona even more fire-prone than before, we do not have that much time to waste."
He added: "President Bush is doing the right thing to save our forests, protect endangered species and ensure the long-term survival of fragile ecosystems."
Later yesterday, Mr. Bush traveled to Portland for a Republican fund-raiser.
Outside his hotel, hundreds of noisy demonstrators chanted slogans denouncing the forest initiative and the possibility of war against Iraq.
Audrey Hudson contributed to this report from Washington.


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