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Bush: Cut Logging Restrictions

President Bush Thursday toured forests devastated by wildfires and proposed easing environmental reviews and other rules to speed the removal of timber from fire-prone U.S. forests.

"The forest policy of our government is misguided policy," Mr. Bush, standing in casual clothes on a stage surrounded by potted trees, told a cheering crowd at a fairgrounds barn. "We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense. We need to understand you let kindling build up and there's a lightning strike, you're going to get yourself a big fire," he said.

It makes sense to clear brush, he said: "We just haven't done it and we're now paying the price."

Mr. Bush traveled from his Texas ranch to southwestern Oregon, near the California state line, for a briefing on local fires that have ravaged the area. On the way, Air Force One passed low over the 471,000-acre Biscuit fire to show the thick smoke and damage from the state's largest blaze in modern history.

Mr. Bush then went to the still-smoldering Squires Peak fire, where protesters gathered on the mountain road leading to the peak. "More forest, less Bush," read one sign.

Against the backdrop of that damage, the president formally announced a plan to make it easier for timber companies to cut wood from fire-prone national forests. Several Western governors who have been pushing for just such changes attended the event.

"Had we properly managed our forests, the devastation caused would not have been nearly as severe and it's a crying shame," said Mr. Bush, surrounded by dead, blackened trees and his cowboy boots covered with ash.

He said that if critics of his policy could see the burned forests they wouldn't oppose his plan, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller.

The logging proposals – first outlined Wednesday – prompted howls from environmentalists. But the Bush administration said changes are necessary to clear a decades-long buildup of highly flammable materials and lessen the risk of catastrophic burns.

Environmentalists see Mr. Bush's plan as an attempt to remove older trees that are coveted by large timber companies.

William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, blasted the president for an "irresponsible anti-environmental agenda."

"The truth is that waiving environmental laws will not protect homes and lives from wildfire. History and science clearly demonstrate that clearing fuels away from the immediate area around homes is the best protection," Meadows said.

Hoping to blunt the hail of criticism, the White House showed reporters flying on the president's plane a promotional video on the plan and offered a briefing by Jim Connaughton, head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.

Connaughton said the past century's policy of nearly complete fire suppression has created "bonfire, tinderbox conditions" in the nation's forests.

"What we want to do is reset the balance. This isn't about clear-cutting, this is about thinning," he said.

Mr. Bush is on the first day of a three-day tour of Western states and is expected to raise at least $5 million for Republican politicians through fund-raising dinners and other events. On Friday, he heads to California and will return to his ranch late Saturday, after more dollar-gathering events in New Mexico for Republican candidates for governor and Congress.

This year's wildfires across the West have renewed the perennial debate between conservationists who prefer thinning just near property that involves only brush and small trees and logging interests who argue that decreasing the risk of fire requires cutting some larger trees in deeper woods as well.

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 top $1.5 billion this year.