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The tour

Pushing 'common sense' at fire site

RUCH ' With the dusty, blackened ground and green treetops of the Squire fire as a backdrop, President Bush eagerly reached out to grip the hand of Cody Goodnough, a firefighter with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

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? — ? — ? — ? — — — — We're trying to bring a little common sense, Bush told the firefighter dressed in canary-yellow Nomex.

During Thursday's tour of the nearly 3,000-acre fire sparked six weeks ago by a lightning storm, Bush said he had found common sense in the form of 90 acres of thinned Bureau of Land Management forest that largely stood up to the fire.

He also announced that he is directing the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, along with the Council on Environmental Quality, to authorize thinning projects on an emergency basis in critical areas on public forests.

He wants them to speed up the process of developing environmental assessments while considering the long-term threat fires pose to endangered species and to expedite the appeals process.

We want our citizens at the local level to have a voice, he said. We want there to be an opportunity for our citizens to speak out. That's the great American way.

But we must discourage the endless delays that prevent good forest policy from going forward, he said.

He called on Congress to pass legislation that will ensure vital forest restoration projects are not tied up in court.

Pilot thinning projects that include partnerships involving residents, conservation groups and timber industry representatives ought to be made permanent, he said.

At the rate the nation's 200 million acres of public forests are being thinned, it would take a century to restore them to safe and healthy conditions, he said.

That's too long, as far as I'm concerned, he said. I know it's too long as far as firefighters are concerned.

Come out and speak to a firefighter about good common-sense policy and you'll hear what I just said, he added. Actively managing forests is going to be the centerpiece of this administration.

The first step is to identify and protect areas that are most vulnerable to catastrophic fires, including sites near communities and watersheds, he said.

He urged cutting through the red tape of forest litigation. The forest thinning project he visited near Ruch was first proposed six years ago but was delayed by protests and red tape, he said. That delay resulted in only a small portion being thinned before the fire swept through, he noted.

BLM Medford District Manager Ron Wenker told Bush that the explosive fire had flames exceeding 100 feet but that they dropped to a few feet when the fire reached the thinned area. Although the forest floor was burned, many trees survived, Wenker noted.

During the tour, the fire appeared to have been less intense in the thinned area. The unthinned area, with skeletal trees and deep ash, appeared to have been heavily burned.

Firefighters battled the stubborn blaze a dozen miles southwest of Medford for a week after lightning sparked it July 13. It threatened 215 homes but none was lost. Suppression cost &

36;2.2 million.

Before talking briefly to Goodnough and fellow ODF firefighter Jerald Hanson, Bush was taken on a short tour of the 90 acres that are part of the Buncom timber project on the BLM's Medford District.

Goodnough, the initial attack incident commander on the Squire fire, told Bush that fighting the fire in the area where the trees had been thinned made a difference.

It made our job easier as well as safer, Goodnough said.

It's a grateful nation ' thank you for what you do, Bush told firefighters at the site.

Before the ground tour of the Squire fire, Bush took an aerial tour of the nearly 500,000-acre Biscuit fire still burning to the west, largely in the Siskiyou National Forest.

That fire, also sparked July 13 by lightning, is the largest in Oregon since the 1865 Silverton fire burned 988,000 acres in the northwest portion of the state. The Biscuit fire, now 50 percent contained, has cost about &

36;90 million to fight.

Wildfires have scorched 6 million acres nationwide, more than twice the 10-year average for late August. The firefighting cost is about &

36;1.5 billion, according to the Forest Service.

Bush said it was the responsibility of the federal government to produce a sensible policy to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

During a brief period in which he took questions from the press, Bush was asked by the how the nation could pay for the cost of thinning public lands throughout the West.

We'll deal with it, he said, noting the funding would have to come from Congress. My job is to make sure it is spent on the right priorities.

The other thing is there are partnerships we can put together for the benefit of those who care about conservation and those who are employed in the forests, he added. If we don't (have the funds), we'll deal with it.

The point, he stressed, is that his program would have broad-based support.

It is a balanced approach with recognizing more than one party involved, he said. We will achieve goals and prevent fires and help the forests.

A Forest Service study has concluded that it would cost &

36;2.7 billion to thin 1.6 million acres in the Klamath Mountain region of southwestern Oregon alone, according to The Associated Press. That figure excludes wilderness, roadless areas and stands of minimal timber in the region.

Most agree that today's public forestlands are unnaturally overstocked because of more than a century of fire suppression. But the timber industry and others blame the environmental community for holding up thinning projects. Environmentalists counter they only object to harvesting the big trees that are the most fire resistant.

Thursday, Bush called for all sides to work together.

It's pretty clear that this fire prevention strategy of our country has been shortsighted, that we haven't done a very good job, he said. It's time to take a step back, assess why and solve the problem.

As he spoke, Bush was accompanied by four Western governors, U.S. Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden of Oregon, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon and Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

This isn't a Republican issue or a Democrat issue, he stressed. Managing our forests is an American issue. It requires an approach that understands there is a difference of opinion, and that we ought to work together to achieve common ground.

Past forest policies haven't focused on thinning, he said.

We haven't had a strategy to clear the forests of built-up brush and densely packed trees that we have seen firsthand here and places around the country, he said. The catastrophic wildfires killed the oldest trees, those which we long to preserve. They kill just about everything in the soil. ... They prey upon weakened forests.

But Bush was quick to observe that the hands-off policy that he believes has led to wildfire crisis was well intended.

And he complimented former President Clinton and his administration for its work on forest policy.

I believe strongly that the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 makes sense, he said, referring to a plan put together by the Clinton administration.

In that plan, different constituent groups joined together, he observed.

The plan talked about how to protect the wildlife habitat, how to make sure recreation areas were in good shape, he said.

That plan also approved the annual harvest of — billion board feet of trees, he said.

That makes sense to me, particularly in a part of the world where people are having trouble finding work, he said. Good forest policy yields a healthy forest, places where people can bring their families, protect the endangered species but it also provides work.

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