MEDFORD, Ore. – Citing mistaken policies of the U.S. government, President Bush unveiled a new policy shift toward thinning national forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.
"The forest policy of our government is misguided policy. It doesn't work," Bush told Oregon residents who live near a wildfire blaze that is Oregon's largest on record. "We need to thin. We need to make our forest healthy by using some common sense."
"We need to understand that if we let kindling build up and there's a lightning strike, you are going to get yourself a big fire. That's what we've got to understand," the president said to laughing and cheers.
Bush couched his plan, which will make it easier for timber companies to get approval to cut wood in fire-prone national forests, in terms of economics and environment.
The president said he supports the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which would allow the production of a billion board feet of timber a year through harvesting in small portions of recreational areas of national forests. Bush said the plan would provide 100,00 jobs while protecting wildlife habitats. The Clinton administration approved the plan, but Congress never passed it into law.
The president said he needs help from Congress to pass laws to ease forestry rules though he said administrative action could take care of some policy changes.
But environmental groups said the president's plans are agenda-driven.
"Unfortunately, the administration is exploiting the fear of fires to push through its pro-logging agenda," said the Natural Resources Defense Council in a written statement.
On the way to Bush's speech, Air Force One flew low over the 471,000-acre Biscuit fire -- Oregon's largest fire ever -- before dropping the president off miles away in an area that still smelled of smoke from the Tiller blaze. The president then went to the Jackson County Fairground in southwestern Oregon near the still-smoldering Squires fire to unveil his multi-point plan.
Currently, 20 fires are raging in 10 states, and wildfires have burned nearly 6 million acres this summer from Alaska to New Mexico -- twice as much as in an average summer. Federal spending to combat wildfires could reach $1.5 billion this year.
This year's Western wildfires have renewed the perennial debate between conservationists who oppose cutting in federal forests and logging interests who argue that underbrush and deadwood increase the risk of fire.
Bush said that his plan would make forests healthy from disease and fire by going "right off the bat" into forest areas that are dangerous to communities, habitats and recreational areas.
It would also streamline the regulatory process and help put an end to lawsuits used to prevent changes to forest policy.
Bush's plan would ease rules on reviewing the environmental effects of proposed logging projects; change the standards by which those proposals are approved; and allow government agencies to negotiate contracts giving timber companies and other entities the right to sell the wood products they harvest in exchange for removing them from the forest.
Another key aspect of the proposal would make it harder for environmental groups and others to appeal logging plans.
A senior administration official allowed that large, commercially desirable trees with high fire risks -- either in dense stands or already dead -- could be felled as part of what the official called Bush's "more active management" of forest growth.
Current Federal policy mandates that forest fires be put out immediately, a practice dating back to the largest wildfire in American history. "The Big Blowup" of August 1910, which spread across three million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington, killed 85 people and darkened skies all the way to upstate New York.
After that widely reported disaster, the government required that all wildfires be extinguished by 10 a.m. the day after being reported, and provided federal money to do so.
But that policy upset the natural forest fire cycle, in which lightning-sparked blazes would thin out underbrush and dead trees without affecting large trees, NRDC said.
Environmental groups, however, differ from the president in their solutions for containing wildfires, including doing more to fireproof homes and structures near wildfire locations. It opposes "thinning" because it says it is just a corporate handout to the logging industry.
"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.
During his speech, Bush said that a good economy would be helped by a manageable forest policy that will reduce the need for firefighting services and help prevent the devastating property losses associated with fires.
While speaking to Oregonians, the president also called on Congress to pass legislation to reduce frivolous lawsuits against medical practitioners, make the estate and marriage penalty tax cuts permanent and to provide a floor for insurance companies that underwrite policies on high-risk buildings.
After the speech, Bush was attending a fund-raising roundtable and dinner in Portland expected to raise $600,000 to $900,000 to be split between the state GOP and Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, a top Democratic target.
On Friday, Bush planned three events in California that were expected to give the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, trailing far behind incumbent Democrat Gray Davis, a much-needed $3 million boost. An additional $1 million would go to the California Republican Party.
While in California, Bush was to speak before a group of Hispanic community advocates and announce new proposals for narrowing the achievement gap in education between minorities and whites, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
The president was returning to his ranch Saturday night, after more dollar-gathering events in New Mexico for GOP candidates for governor and Congress.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.