Photo-oping his way through the charred remains of an Oregon forest destroyed by fire, President Bush made another pitch for preventing forest fires by letting loggers have their way on public land.
It is quite apparent that Mr. Bush has never seen an environmental-protection law that he understands. He urges the cutting of underbrush and harvesting of timber by private logging companies. The policy is simple: no forests, no forest fires.
Forest Service policy since the disastrous fire year of 1910 has been to suppress fires, ignoring the important and beneficial role they play in the natural life cycle of woodlands. This policy was changed in 2000 to allow thinning of overgrown forests that provide the tinder for disastrous fires.
Yet, as a General Accounting Office study shows, too few fires have been allowed to burn (82 out of 59,000 fires this year) even where they pose no threat to man-made development. Moreover, too much of the $6 billion spent on fire prevention has been expended on the wrong kind of programs, much of it in the southeastern states rather than in the more arid western United States, where drought conditions and unwise development have combined to produce heavy damage.
The environmental policy of the Bush Administration almost invariably places confidence in self-regulation by industry. The President's confidence that the logging companies will do the right thing flies in the face of continuing stories about the financial malfeasance of several former giants on Wall Street.
More than that, though, Mr. Bush is to be criticized for his simplistic approach to a serious problem. More fires should be allowed to burn, as long as they do not threaten homes and other property at the so-called forest-urban interface. Some logging might be allowed, under strict governmental supervision, as an incentive for loggers to cut and remove brush and smaller trees that are more susceptible to fire.
Property owners should be required to take steps to fireproof their chalets and cottages in densely forested areas, particularly in the dry western states. It is no different from imposing restrictions on rebuilding homes and other structures in flood-prone areas along the nation's major rivers. Washington is quite good about insisting on that as a condition of future flood insurance.
Finally, one must question just how much of an obligation the government has to provide jobs for loggers in small western communities. Washington takes the news of massive layoffs in older industrial cities with perfect equanimity. What makes a few hundred jobs in the Oregon or Idaho forests so sacrosanct?
The answer lies in politics. Government-hating lawmakers in western states are very quick to urge subsidies for their constituents affected by environmental restrictions. Members of Congress from midwestern and northeastern states should learn to be as pragmatic as their western colleagues.