PORTLAND, Ore. - Fast-growing blazes in central Oregon serve 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 left his Texas ranch on Thursday and headed to Deschutes National Forest, launching a two-day trip to the Pacific Northwest to polish his environmental record. The White House moved a planned speech by the president from Camp Sherman to Redmond, which is farther from the area where hundreds of firefighters are battling the flames.
Before heading to the forest, Bush stopped at the University of Portland to raise more than $1 million for his re-election campaign at a $2,000-a-ticket luncheon of grilled salmon salad. The event was awash in money - pushing the Bush-Cheney '04 fund-raising total to more than $44 million - but the president's words included talk of the limp U.S. economy.
"To get the economy going again, I have twice led the United States Congress to pass historic tax relief for the American people," Bush said. "Here's what I believe, and here's what I know: that when Americans have more take-home to spend, to save, to invest, the whole economy will grow and people are more likely to find a job."
Oregonians have been hard hit by the sluggish economy; the state's jobless rate was 8.1 percent in July. State lawmakers, wrangling with revenue shortages that closed schools early last year, passed a budget on Wednesday only after agreeing on an income tax surcharge.
A few thousand anti-Bush demonstrators gathered near the university where the police presence was heavy. One man wore a Bush mask and carried a sign that said "Stop me before I lie again." Along the motorcade route, one group, ringed by police in riot gear, made rude gestures at the entourage with their middle fingers. Several signs, carried by people against the war in Iraq, said: "Killer. Impeach Bush."
Still, the protesting crowd was more peaceful than it was it was in August 2002, when the president attended a Portland fund-raiser. Then, more than 1,000 protesters screamed anti-Bush messages, and police used pepper spray and rubber bullets to control the crowd.
A handful of Bush supporters showed up to greet the president as well. A man on a pickup covered with flags shouted, "We love Bush. We support our troops."
Bush has been pushing his forest-thinning initiative for months - in southeastern Arizona last week, on the radio Saturday and in the Rose Garden in May. The House has passed the administration's proposal. A Senate version 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.
A briefing by forest officials and an aerial tour of the burning fires was planned for the president so he could see the damage.
There also are political reasons for visiting the two states that Bush failed to win in 2000.
The Bush campaign is eyeing Oregon's seven electoral votes, 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 Washington.