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Bush to Ease Logging Rules in Wake of Recent Fires - 2002-08-22

With forest fires raging in several states, President Bush is announcing big changes in U.S. forest policy. He says the forests are overgrown and wants to give logging companies more access to federal land to clear away brush, dead wood and small trees that can serve as tinder.

For the second time in as many months, the president found himself near a fire line viewing the destruction caused by a massive blaze.

He went to the Pacific northwest, to the state of Oregon to meet with firefighters and tour once-wooded areas that reek from smoke. He walked on burnt soil, pulling charred bark off trees and brushing away ash.

You could still smell the smoke at a nearby fairground, where the president announced his strategy to combat what he called a "fire crisis" in the western United States. "I think we need to be honest with the American people. The forest policy of our government is misguided policy. It doesn't work!" Mr. Bush said.

The president said the best way to reduce the risk of fire is to thin the forests and clear away highly flammable brush and small trees. "It makes sense to encourage people to make sure that the forests not only are healthy from disease, but are healthy from fire. That is what we have got to do here in America. We haven't done that in the past. We just haven't done that and we are now paying the price," Mr. Bush said.

President Bush said there is no time to waste noting that 2.5 million hectares of land have been ravaged by this year's wildfires. He said the best way to get rid of the overgrowth is to ease environmental laws so timber companies can step up logging in federal forests.

"There are some high-priority areas that we need to declare emergencies and get to thinning now before it is too late!" Mr. Bush said.

Under his plan, private logging companies will be able to sell timber they clear in exchange for removing brush, dead wood and some trees. At the same time, environmentalists will be restricted in their ability to challenge such deals in court - a common delaying tactic.

They are furious about the president's plan, saying all it will do is put money into the pocket of the timber industry. Environmental groups say they support selective thinning of small trees and brush near the growing number of communities that now surround many national forests. But they say the president is giving the logging industry access to larger, older trees that should be protected.