Oregon Fires Fuel Bush's Forest Policy

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) -- Fast-growing blazes in central Oregon are serving as a backdrop for President Bush's plan to thin forests of trees and underbrush _ and as fuel for environmentalists who oppose the plan.

Bush leaves his Texas ranch on Thursday bound for Deschutes National Forest, launching a two-day trip to the Pacific Northwest to polish his environmental record. After speaking at a $2,000-a-ticket fund-raiser in Portland, Bush is to visit Camp Sherman, Ore., near where hundreds of firefighters are battling the flames.

Bush has been pushing his forest-thinning initiative for months _ in southeastern Arizona last week, on the radio Saturday, in the Rose Garden in May. The House has passed the administration's proposal. A Senate version has cleared committee and could be addressed by the full chamber as early as next month.

Environmental groups, including some expected to protest his visit, say the president's forest policy allows timber companies to log large trees in the interest of thinning. They also are wary of streamlined environmental studies and limited appeals on proposed work to cut trees and brush on as many as 20 million acres of forest land.

The Wilderness Society says the administration's proposal falls far short of protecting communities near forests. The society argues that the Bush proposal focuses on federal lands while studies show that 85 percent of the land that surrounds communities most at risk from wildfires is private, state or tribal land _ not federal.

``We're worried that they're using the fear of wildfires to promote logging in the backcountry _ far away from homes and communities,'' said society spokesman Chris Mehl.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president's event in Oregon will ``highlight the importance of conservation and the importance of personal stewardship, while making sure that we protect jobs at the same time.''

``I think that the environment is too important to be made into a divisive partisan issue,'' he said Wednesday.

There are political reasons for visiting the two states that Bush failed to win in 2000.

The Bush campaign is eyeing Oregon, which the president lost to Al Gore by only about 6,700 votes. Poll numbers show Democrats with a 2-1 advantage over Bush when people were asked whom they trust to do the best job on the environment.

Gore won Washington with 50.2 percent of the vote, compared with Bush's 44.6 percent. Bush's schedule on Friday includes another fund-raiser and a speech on saving salmon in neighboring Washington.

A topic in Oregon that the administration has sought to downplay involves the role of Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, in developing water policy in the Klamath River Basin, which was ravaged by drought in 2001.

A year and a half ago, Rove briefed dozens of political appointees at the Interior Department about diverting water in the Klamath to help farmers, a key group of GOP supporters. Environmentalists want a fuller explanation of the briefing, which the White House says was routine.

The Interior Department increased the water supply to drought-stricken farmland several months later despite complaints from environmentalists who argued that diverting the water would kill threatened fish. After irrigation was restored in 2002, 33,000 chinook salmon died while swimming up the Klamath.

The White House has said that Bush has set up a Cabinet-level group on the Klamath, which is committed to balancing the needs of farmers, people who need jobs, the quality of water and fish populations.