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Cautious approval greets Bush forest plan

Both the local environmental community and the timber industry applaud President Bush's proposed pilot project to thin brush and other forest fuels to reduce wildfire hazards in southwestern Oregon.

But they are also ready to hold administrative feet to the proverbial fire if the project announced this week fails to meet their differing expectations.

We hope this is a real fuels reduction project, but it looks like it could open the door for logging (mature trees), said Joseph Vaile, a biologist with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.

Real fuels reduction is not an issue, he added. We're all for expediting real fuels reduction and protecting communities from fire. That should be the agency's No. — priority.

A portion of the Bureau of Land Management's Medford District along the Rogue River between Grants Pass and Galice is one of 10 sites that Bush has proposed around the West to reduce the threat of wildfires while testing new rules aimed at speeding up forest thinning.

The area includes about 8,000 acres of the Medford District scattered in a checkerboard pattern along the river.

Dave Hill, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, supports both thinning and commercial logging.

We would like to see thinning of commercial-size trees as part of the prescription, not only for forest health but for the economy as well, he said, adding that including larger trees would increase the economic viability of the project.

He also supports the proposal's review of the environmental and economic impact of not thinning the area.

We saw one of the very severe consequences (of not thinning) in the Biscuit fire, Hill said, referring to the nearly half-million-acre fire this past summer largely in the Siskiyou National Forest.

The lost timber combined with forest rehabilitation outside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area will cost millions, he noted, adding that thinning beforehand would have helped avoid that taxpayer expense.

Improving forest health and thinning is good for the environment, he said. If that also produces product and economic return, that's good for southwest Oregon. I don't see a lot of negatives in that.

But Abbie Jossie, field manager for BLM's Grants Pass Resource Area, is quick to caution the project's main goal is to reduce wildfire danger in the wildland-urban interface.

The actual activities have yet to be determined, she stressed. Some small-diameter material that may have some marketable use may be removed. But how much or where or what is yet to be determined.

The land included in the proposal is not earmarked for timber production, she said. The BLM lands along the river corridor is designated recreational under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Planning on the pilot project will begin next month, Jossie said, adding the agency is waiting for new National Environmental Policy Act guidelines expected to be in place in January.

The agency will be working with local communities and interested groups as it looks at parcels that may be included, she said.

We will be working to find common ground, she said.

But Vaile and George Sexton, conservation director of the Wildlands Center, plan to make sure their voices are heard. They are worried that stream-lining projects means bypassing public input.

We think good fuels reduction comes out of public input, Sexton said. The Medford BLM has had years to come up with responsible fuels projects. Instead they've come up with old-growth liquidation.

I don't see much of a reason for optimism, he added. My guess is that if there is less public input, that is not going to result in more responsible projects.

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