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Opposition pops up before the Bush plan is heard

Even before President Bush unveils his proposal to reduce catastrophic wildfires by thinning public forestlands, opposition is heating up.

Environmental groups are concerned the plan to be revealed today during Bush's speech at the Jackson County Expo will allow the logging of big trees that are the most fire-resistant in a forest while clear-cutting laws that protect the environment.

This is a problem we're not going to log our way out of, warned Joseph Vaile, a wildlife biologist and spokesman for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Environmental activists support thinning of brush and small trees to protect rural communities but are opposed to logging the big trees, he said.

We're afraid this (proposal) will lessen citizen input and lead to logging that won't reduce fire danger, he said. What we'll see is more brush encroachment and tree farms, creating areas that are more flammable than old-growth forests.

Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist heading the World Wildlife Fund's Klamath/Siskiyou Program, agreed.

The solution is not in logging the remaining big trees, but go to where the need is greatest ' closest to where people live in the urban interface and where the tree farms are, he said. Any proposal that logs big trees will not lower the fire risk.

A senior administrative official said Wednesday that Bush will propose removing or reducing administrative barriers to cutting timber from fire-prone forests. The plan would make it easier to get approval to thin brush and small noncommercial trees, the official said.

The Los Angeles Times reported the plan would make it harder for environmental groups and others to appeal logging plans. Some commercial-grade trees also would be logged in areas at high risk of fire, the paper said.

The senior official said the plan was not intended to expose forests to widespread commercial logging.

Meanwhile, environmental groups on Wednesday proposed a five-year, &

36;10 billion plan that would make available money for fireproofing homes in forest areas and focus programs for thinning forests and removing brush to protective zones around communities.

Most involved in the forestry debate agree that fire suppression for more than a century has helped create the potential for catastrophic fires.

However, timber industry representatives also have accused the environmental community of using administrative appeals and the courts to halt timber-thinning sales in the region, increasing the potential for explosive wildfires.

Environmentalists counter they have only opposed timber sales that call for logging the large trees in a unit.

But Dave Hill, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, begs to differ.

That's just a bunch of baloney, he said. Almost all the thinning activities the agencies have been trying to do for the past 10 years have been protested or appealed.

To say the White House is talking about cutting fire-resistant trees is nonsense.

Although cautioning that he has yet to see the specifics of Bush's timber plan, Hill said it appears to be sound.

The Bush administration has put together a good proposal, he said. They are aware the forests are overstocked, unhealthy and need to be thinned.

That will probably require some commercial logging, he added. But that will pay for this whole effort, rather than be subsidized by American taxpayers.

Cindy Deacon Williams, forest watch monitor for the Ashland-based Headwaters environmental group, is concerned that the proposal may focus too much on financial gain for the timber industry.

What I'd like to see happen is that in response to these fires, our management be driven by the desire to protect rural communities and restore the health of the forest.

If it happens there is some commercial product available in the effort, then that's great, she added. But I don't think the desire to produce money for timber companies should be driving management decisions.

DellaSala believes the environmental community shares some of the same concerns as the administration.

Let's focus on where we have agreement first, then try to work on the other issues, DellaSala said.

In addition to thinning, reintroducing fire through prescribed burning to reduce the buildup of vegetation is required, he said.

These fires are a wake-up call from Mother Nature, he said. The entire ecosystem is out of balance because we've been logging the most fire-resistant trees in the forest.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at