For Bush, Dollars and Cents Drive Land-Use Policies ; Controversial Moves Include a Plan to Make Logging for Fire Prevention Profitable by Clearing Some Big Trees

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Seasonal rains and blessedly cooler weather have pretty much brought an end to this year's scorching fire season across the West.

But the heat and smoke of the political battle over how to deal with millions of acres of fire-prone national forest lingers like a smoldering stump. And the way it's being argued reflects the Bush administration's general approach to environmental protection. From global warming to endangered species to clean air and water, there's a tendency to favor economic solutions to problems that aren't easily measured in dollars and cents.

The president and his supporters in Congress want to reduce the wildfire danger by making it easier for loggers to thin trees and brush. To do this, they argue, regulations need to be streamlined, lengthy lawsuits shortened, and the ability of citizens to appeal tree cutting ought to be limited.

Those who stand to benefit directly from Mr. Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative favor this approach. W. Henson Moore, head of the American Forest & Paper Association, an industry trade group, calls the plan "a balanced, scientific, common-sense approach to protecting our federal lands."

Others are not so sure.

"One person's streamlining is another person's gutting," says Robert Vandermark of the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

It's not just the usual suspects - tree-huggers versus the timber industry - involved in the debate.

Before this summer's blazes, Western governors (Republicans as well as Democrats) had put together a 10-year plan to reduce fire danger by thinning out forests. The administration had signed on to that plan, but now wants to go further - insisting that fire- reduction logging has to be economically profitable, which means cutting some big trees as well as the fire-prone thicket of smaller trees and undergrowth. And it wants exemptions to some of the nation's premier environmental laws to do so.

This has left some Western governors grumbling.

"Capitalizing on the legitimate concern over wildfires to justify stripping away federal environmental laws is not, in the end, going to improve overall forest health," Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (D) said last week. "Why? Because it will repolarize the debate and it will increase the likelihood that absolutely nothing is going to happen on this issue this year in Congress."

Other critics remain skeptical that a pay-for-itself forest thinning program is possible. Even when clea-cutting larger, more valuable trees in national forests was routine, Uncle Sam consistently lost money on timber sales to private companies.

To reduce fire danger on the 10 million acres of federal land most at risk, experts say, will take a tidier approach - one that more closely mimics the natural fires that periodically thin out vegetation between larger, fire-resistant trees. …