Bush to Propose Easing Logging Rule

Wed Aug 21, 5:44 PM ET

By MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer
White House - AP

WASHINGTON (AP) - Responding to the rash of devastating wildfires that have swept the West this summer, President Bush ( news - web sites) is planning to ease restrictions on logging in national forests.

AP Photo

Bush, who plans to visit a fire site Thursday in Oregon, is expected to propose changes to environmental laws to make it easier for timber companies to get approval to thin out federal forests and remove fire-prone dead trees and undergrowth.

But environmentalists said the administration was gutting safeguards that have protected the national forests for decades. "Our fear is that this is a backdoor way to open more land to commercial logging," said Allen Mattison, a spokesman for the Sierra Club ( news - web sites).

Under Bush's plan, timber companies not only could thin forests of brush, but cut trees including some more than a century old that are now protected, Mattison said.

Administration officials said forest management changes are needed to reduce the fire risks. This summer, wildfires have burned more than 6 million acres from Alaska to New Mexico, or twice as much timber as in an average summer, said the U.S. Forest Service. Federal spending to combat wildfires could reach $1.5 billion this year.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, characterizing Western forests as "a tinder box waiting for a spark," said much of the blame can be traced to "nearly a century of well-intentioned but misguided management" of federal forests including the policies of putting out fires as soon as they start and restricting removal of underbrush, fallen logs and dead timbers.

This has left forests "crowded ... with thick undergrowth (that) makes forests susceptible to disease, drought and severe wildfires," she wrote in an op-ed article published Wednesday in USA Today.

Environmentalists acknowledged that decades of quickly extinguishing fires contributed to the fire problem. But they insisted that actions by environmentalists to protect forests played no part in the fire hazard.

They cited a recent report by the General Accounting Office ( news - web sites), the investigative agency of Congress, that said that less than 1 percent of the government's attempts to thin forests were challenged by outside groups including environmentalists.

The environmentalists accused the administration of using this summer's fires to help the timber industry, which contributed heavily to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, gain greater access to federal forests.

A key part of Bush's plan would make it harder for environmental groups and others to challenge government logging plans.

"We're very concerned they will use the fires to further an agenda they've had for a long time and that is to change key environmental laws" that serve to protect the forests from logging, said Linda Lance, a Wilderness Society vice president.

"We're all stuck on fires right now, but the Bush administration is talking about changes in environmental law on the books for 30 years," said Susan Ash, a forest ecologist with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an environmental group.

Chris West, a vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said in light of this summer's fires the government has no choice but to act.

"We've burned up half a million acres of Oregon's forests. It's high time the federal government began to seriously address concerns about the health of Western forests," he said.

But environmentalists said any action should be directed at protecting communities from wildfires. They called for creation of "community protection zones" that would allow thinning in areas near homes and other property, but would leave more remote areas of the forests alone.

A number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, proposed a five-year, $10 billion plan that would make money available for fireproofing homes in forest areas and focus programs for thinning forests and removing brush to lands closest to homes.


On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/

Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org

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