Bush: Ease Forest Restriction

Article excerpt

Byline: SCOTT MABEN The Register-Guard

CORRECTION (ran 8/27/02): A story in Friday's newspaper about President Bush's timber policy announcement in Central Point misspelled the name of a Eugene-based environmental group, Cascadia Wildlands Project.

CENTRAL POINT - Federal land management agencies must have a freer hand in reviewing and approving plans to thin and selectively log national forests if the country is to stem the rise in catastrophic wildfires, President Bush said Thursday in fire-ravaged Southern Oregon.

Accompanied by his top natural resources managers, Bush said he wants to ease restrictions on noncommercial thinning and commercial logging in forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"I think we need to be honest with the American people. The forest policy of our government is misguided policy," the president told several thousand hand-picked guests in a stuffy indoor rodeo arena at the Jackson County Fairgrounds.

"We need to thin. We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense. We need to understand, you let kindling build up and there's a lightning strike, you're going to get yourself a big fire," he said.

The United States has failed to ensure that its forests are protected from fire, "and we're now paying the price," Bush said.

He also lamented that projects designed to remove small-diameter trees, dead wood and brush from unnaturally thick, fire-prone stands of timber too often are slowed or blocked by environmental reviews, appeals and lawsuits.

"There's just too many lawsuits. There's endless litigation," Bush said, prompting cheers from an audience that included stalwart Republican supporters, Nomex-clad firefighters, local business leaders and elementary school students.

"We want to make sure our citizens have the right to the courthouse. People ought to have a right to express themselves, no question about it," he said.

The president's plan sparked a firestorm of criticism from environmentalists who claim that the administration wants to strip important safeguards for wildlife, water, old growth trees and ecological diversity to feed the timber industry more wood.

"It's clear that the Bush administration intends to use the fire hysteria to streamline environmental law and increase logging in mature and old growth forests," said Josh Laughlin, spokesman for Cascadia Wildlands Project, a Eugene-based conservation group.

"I see this as payback to the timber industry for putting $1 million in his back pocket when he was campaigning in the West," Laughlin said, referring to contributions from timber concerns for Bush's 2000 election bid.

But administration officials said the proposal wouldn't expose federal forests to widespread commercial logging.

"The main emphasis is not on old growth forests," Interior Secretary Gale Norton told The Register-Guard in an interview after the president spoke. "What we are trying to do is improve the overall health of our forests. The problems come largely from trees that have grown up after we began the fire-suppression policy" in the early part of the past century.

Norton conceded that some large, commercially desirable trees could be targeted under the new approach, but she noted that some cutting of older trees already is allowed under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan adopted by President Clinton in an effort to resolve disputes over logging in habitat of the threatened northern spotted owl.

Timber interests complain that the 8-year-old forest plan has failed to produce anywhere near the volume of timber from national forestlands that it promised, and they blame time-consuming environmental reviews and appeals by environmental groups.

Bush said he strongly supports the Northwest Forest Plan, "a plan which should allow the production of a billion board feet of timber a year" and provide for 100,000 jobs. …