Bush Views Arizona Forest Fire Damage

SUMMERHAVEN, Ariz. (AP) -- During a visit to a charred mountain resort community Monday, President Bush called on Congress to pass legislation to allow for prompt thinning of overgrown forests.

``Forest-thinning projects make a significant difference about whether or not wildfires will destroy a lot of property,'' Bush said after touring charred areas of the Santa Catalina mountains in southeastern Arizona. ``We need to thin our forests in America.''

The president came to the fire-damaged resort community of Summerhaven near Tucson to rally support for legislation designed to prevent catastrophic forest fires and cut delays for logging companies to thin overgrown forests.

``I want to remind the House of Representatives and members of the Senate, we have an obligation to help people fight fires in America,'' the president said during a visit to charred sections of the Santa Catalina mountains in southeastern Arizona.

Not all of the thinning can be done by government, but should also be done by contractors, he said.

``That will save taxpayer money and help the economy,'' Bush said.

Critics said in advance of Monday's trip that Bush's program would undercut environmental laws and would not provide the money necessary to protect communities from wildfires.

From Arizona, Bush was to travel to Colorado to headline a $2,000-per-person fund-raiser _ his 11th event for his 2004 re-election campaign this year. He already has raised about $40 million.

The president has scheduled three other trips in August with environmental themes _ another on his ``Healthy Forest Initiative'' in Oregon, one on preserving national parks in California and one on salmon habitat in Washington state.

Environmentalists said that Bush's wildfire policy falls short of what is needed. ``The Bush-backed measure does not provide the funding needed to protect communities and instead uses the fear of fire to gut bedrock environmental laws and tip the scales of justice in our courts,'' the Wilderness Society said in a statement.

Bush's program focuses solely on federal law, the Wilderness Society said, when studies show that 85 percent of the land surrounding communities threatened by wildfire is private, state or tribal.

During his helicopter tour Monday, Bush surveyed the scattered wildfire damage on rugged mountaintops before heading to a briefing by forestry officials on the fringe of Coronado National Forest.

Bush nodded grimly as Ron Senn, district ranger for the Santa Catalina Ranger District, described how the Aspen fire raced along a now-blackened ridge.

``That's gotta be a lot of work,'' Bush said. He addressed several dozen people, many of them rangers, with dead, burned trees behind him.

About 100 people gathered along the highway leading to the mountaintop community on Monday to protest the forest initiative. One protester held a sign reading: ``Bush Plan Equals Greed.'' Another sign said: ``Who Burned Summerhaven?''

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. It would eliminate some environmental reviews and limit appeals on overgrown woodlands so forest projects could be completed within months.

The measure awaits action by the full Senate, where it faces significant opposition. Lawmakers from both parties support speeding up the process of thinning overgrown forests, though they differ on the standards on when to allow the thinning.

Bush needs to build more public support for his positions on the environment. Democrats held a 2-1 advantage over Bush when people were asked in a recent poll who they trust to do a better job on the issue.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, dismissed any suggestion the environmental focus is for political reasons.

``It's August,'' he said in a telephone interview Sunday. ``The time is right. That's when people are focused on these issues.''

Some critics say Summerhaven is a curious place for Bush to pitch his initiative. It was lack of money, not bureaucratic hurdles, that prevented critical thinning in the area, they say.

Bush proposed his protection program last year, and has implemented portions of it through new government regulations. They no longer require environmental studies before trees are logged or burned to prevent forest fires. The rules also limit appeals of such projects.

The Aspen fire that charred Summerhaven burned 84,750 acres and destroyed more than 330 homes, cabins and other buildings earlier this summer. Summerhaven was hit by another wildfire the previous year.