Bush: Congress Can Stop Wildfires

President Bush views fire damage areas at Inspiration Rock at Coronado National Forest in Summerhaven, Ariz. on Monday, August 11, 2003. The president was there to promote his healthy forests initiative. Left to right, are; Dan Oltrogge, Incident commander 2003, Bush, Ron Senn, Santa Carolina District Ranger at the Coronado National Forest, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, and Dale Bosworth, USDA Forest Service chief.
Standing before fire-blackened trees, President Bush opened a campaign Monday to polish his environmental image with a forest-thinning initiative that he said would prevent wildfires like those that destroyed hundreds of homes here.

Bush followed up his forest speech by selecting a new chief of the Environmental Protection Agency: Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. The three-term governor is an advocate of increasing environmental cooperation among federal, state and local officials.

On his first excursion from a monthlong stay at his ranch, the president also stopped in Denver for a fund-raiser to add $1 million to his re-election fund, which already had collected more than $40 million.

"I need you to remind he people of this state Republican, Democrat, independent, don't care that our message is hopeful for every single citizen who lives in this state,'' Bush told nearly 400 donors.

Monday's trip was the first of four environmental events in August — another "Healthy Forest Initiative" in Oregon, one on preserving national parks in California and one on salmon habitat in Washington state. A recent poll found that Democrats held a 2-1 advantage over Bush when people were asked whom they trust to do a better job on the environment.

From Marine One, Bush surveyed the devastation left by wildfires that have scorched more than 100,000 acres around this mountaintop community in the last two summers. Bush said the Healthy Forests Initiative would help prevent destruction by reducing legal obstacles to logging projects in fire-threatened areas.

Critics say the initiative will make it too easy for logging companies to cut down trees in national forests and will limit the public's input in forest management decisions.

"Forest-thinning projects make a significant difference about whether or not wildfires will destroy a lot of property," Bush told several dozen rangers and others.

"We saw the devastation, we saw the effects of a fire run wild, not only on hillsides, but also in communities, in burned building, lives turned upside down because of the destruction of fire," Bush said.

He was joined in the helicopter by Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who challenged Bush for their party's 2000 presidential nomination. They flew over jagged peaks that were a patchwork of black and green — some areas scorched, some untouched.

The House has passed a bill that calls for aggressive logging on up to 20 million acres of federal land at high risk of fire and implement other provisions of Bush's initiative. A similar bill has passed the Senate agriculture committee. Bush said it was time "for members in the Senate ... to reach across a partisan divide and get a good bill out."

The Forest Service and Interior Department estimate 190 million acres are at risk for catastrophic fire — an area nearly the size of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana combined.

Previous rules required environmental studies for nearly every logging project.

Under Healthy Forests, logging projects affecting 1,000 acres at most will not need such studies if the land is deemed at-risk for fire. Controlled burns, where fire is used to burn excess trees under certain circumstances, could be done without environmental studies for projects up to 4,500 acres.

Neither of these "categorically excluded" projects would be subject to administrative appeals, but they could be challenged in court.

"Unlike our first president, George Bush just can't come clean about his plan to cut down trees," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who is running for president. "He's using the real need to clear brush and small trees from our forests as an excuse for a timber industry giveaway, and Arizonans should make no mistake: this is logging industry greed masquerading as environmental need."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., another candidate for president, said Bush's proposal would roll back environmental protections and target forests that are hundreds of miles from communities.

A blaze dubbed the the Aspen fire here destroyed more than 84,000 acres earlier this summer, and last year, the so-called Bullock fire charred more than 30,000. This year's blaze destroyed more than 330 homes, cabins and other buildings.

Before Bush arrived at Summerhaven for his speech Monday, Pima County sheriff's deputies shot and killed a man who ran a highway barricade at the base of the mountain. The man, who was not identified, told deputies he wanted to die and was headed toward some officers when they fired at least one shot at him, said Deputy Steve Easton, a spokesman for the Pima County Sheriff's office. He said the incident didn't appear related to the president's visit, Easton said.