The 2004 presidential election is a year away, but it's clear which candidate the West needs to support. President Bush stands for common-sense environmental policies; his Democratic challengers, particularly current front-runner Howard Dean, stand for platitudes that ignore the plight of the rural West. We need to see President Bush re-elected to rescue the rural West from continued economic stagnation.

We cannot predict which candidates will stand toe to toe in November 2004. However, President Bush clearly "gets it" when it comes to the forest-health issue. The Democratic candidates, at least the ones we've heard from on the campaign trail, do not.

Why would we focus so exclusively on one issue when deciding which candidate to endorse? The reason is simple. The lifeblood of timber-dependent communities in the rural West depends on this one issue. If our sawmills close down, we lose family-wage jobs and enough families to endanger our schools, tax base and quality of life.

The environmental policies of a president may not make or break a community (the West endured eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration, which was openly hostile to the western way of life). However, given the pressures of "free trade," it's doubtful that our timber industries could survive another term of Clintonian environmental policies.

Not all Democrats march lockstep with the "no management" crowd, of course.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., warned that unless the government pays for forest health, "what's going to happen is a lot of rural communities in Oregon are going to become sacrifice zones - you're going to see them just burn up."

Wyden provides a stark and much-needed wake-up call to his colleagues. Sadly, too many of his peers in the U.S. Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, view environmentalism as a poker chip, something to cash in when they want to play on the emotion of voters who never have seen a western forest but believe the environmentalist rhetoric about how logging companies are poised to chop down the last tree. The truth is exactly the opposite: Our logging companies must resort to costly foreign imports of lumber or heavy cutting on private lands to keep their operations afloat. National forests are so choked with tinder - much of it recoverable, merchantable timber - that fires no longer creep through, restoring habitats, but burn with ferocious intensity. After the fires, salvageable timber becomes fodder for destructive insects and disease - and future fires - because these trees sit neglected while environmentalists tangle the Forest Service up in more paperwork and litigation.

President Bush understands this reality. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the nation does not. The president has shown political courage to defend practical forest-rules reform in the face of demagoguery and condemnation from both parties. The Democratic front-runner for president, Dean, does not understand this reality of the West. He is one of those demagoguing the forest-health issue.

Dean pledges to "conserve our wild and open spaces," but he ignores the biggest threat to these wild and open spaces - continued paralysis of the decision-making apparatus of the federal government. He writes on his Web site ( "The Bush administration never misses a chance to put private interests above the public good, and its misnamed 'Healthy Forests' initiative is just the latest example. Rather than funding the Forest Service to adequately study and implement forest fire reduction strategies, the White House has handed a windfall to the logging industry. The Bush plan limits public review of local forest management plans and restricts citizen appeals. A sound forest fire reduction plan will rely on scientific expertise, not generalized plans that champion the logging of healthy trees."

Dean obviously has no grasp of the problem. The truth is we need to limit public review and restrict citizen appeals. These tactics have immobilized our federal land managers for too long. Now we face a crisis that won't be fixed by more studies. To claim that the logging industry will receive a "windfall" from streamlined forest planning ignores the decrepit state of this industry in the United States. Dean, who touts the need for American jobs, should count the number of sawmills and lumber plants that have closed in the West while our national forests sat neglected.

The president has accused his critics of playing politics. He's right, of course. But he and Wyden know that the U.S. Congress still doesn't "get it." Unfortunately, they differ on how far they will go to change this situation. Wyden says the votes are not there to stop a filibuster of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. This bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., mirrors many - but not all - of Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative.

Wyden may view himself as a pragmatist by backing away from the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, but our rural communities need leadership. If enough western senators, particularly Democratic western senators, would align with Bush and dispel the propaganda of radical environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Senate could pass the Healthy Forests Restoration Act with its key reforms intact. With further reforms, we could begin to witness a sea change in our forest health and in our prosperity. As a bonus, our federal land-management agencies could begin curbing the number of catastrophic fires that annually imperil the lives of firefighters and drain the U.S. Treasury. But we need leadership. That's why we need to re-elect President Bush in 2004.

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