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Political Play of the Week

Going west with a forest policy initiative

Bush toured areas damaged by the Squires Peak fire in Oregon during his Western trip.  

By Bill Schneider
Senior political analyst

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "Go west, young man," New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley once advised. That's exactly what President Bush did this week -- not to seek his fortune, but to mark the political Play of the Week.

Westerners have long resented the federal government's hands-off policy toward managing forests. Bush shares their frustration.

"We haven't had a strategy to clear the forest floor of built-up brush and densely packed trees that we have seen firsthand, here and in other places around the country," said Bush.

The argument is you have to cut down the forest in order to save it -- which sounds ridiculous, except to the people who live there.

"We have got to clean up these forests," said Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, a fellow Republican. "Nature did it on a very regular basis before people came out here."

Biscuit fire
Navajo Hotshot Bradley John of Arizona watches for spot fires during a burnout on the Biscuit fire near Brookings, Oregon.  

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens admitted feeling the heat over the wildfires ravaging the West this season.

"We're facing a huge challenge here because of these fires," said Owens, also a Republican.

A consensus has been growing among Westerners: Federal environmental restrictions must be relaxed to streamline the process of thinning out dangerously overgrown forests. That policy was endorsed this year by Western governors from both parties and by a bipartisan group of 15 Western senators.

"It is absolutely critical that, on a bipartisan basis, we move aggressively with a fuels reduction program to end this devastation," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.

What broke the political logjam was a move by the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, to bypass federal regulations and allow a forest-thinning program in the fire-plagued Black Hills area of his home state.

"My attitude is, if it's good enough for that part of South Dakota, it's good enough for Oregon," said Bush.

Thursday, in Oregon, President Bush seized the opening and called for a more aggressive logging policy.

"It's not a Republican idea. It's not a Democratic idea. It's an American idea to preserve our forests," he said.

Environmentalists protested and complained.

"What he wants to do is finance this program by doing clear-cuts in old growth, and that is not what America wants," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Washington.

"What the critics need to do is come and see first-hand the effect of bad forest policy," Bush responded.

It's a tribute to the West's growing political clout. According to the census, migrants are leaving old Sun Belt cities like Los Angeles, Miami and Houston and moving to the interior West -- to places like Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas. It's the New Sun Belt: not on the coast, but at the edge of the forest.

The West has seized the initiative. You could call it the triumph of Western civilization. You could also call it the political Play of the Week.




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