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Cant see the fires for the trees?

Here's the choice: Mow down a few hundred cottonwoods that obstruct large-craft landings at Troutdale Airport, or place thousands of acres of trees throughout Oregon and Washington at greater risk of fire.

The logic of clearing the flight path at an airport critical for battling Northwest forest fires would seem plain. But up until Tuesday, bureaucratic process had the upper hand over rational thought. Removal of the trees has been delayed for months - even years - because the cottonwoods are within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and also under the jurisdiction of the slow-moving Multnomah County land-use division.

Fortunately, top county officials, working with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, have taken a more practical view of the situation and come up with a better determination: If there's an emergency, the county legally can allow immediate removal of the trees - a chore that would take several days.

That's an improvement, but perhaps still too slow to keep up with fast-moving forest fires.

The Troutdale Airport, operated by the Port of Portland, is a key base for air tankers that are employed to fight forest fires. Because the cottonwoods have grown to a height that obstructs the tankers' ability to land at the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration decided those tankers now must be diverted to other airports farther away. The obvious solution - cutting the trees - has been impeded by a tangle of land-use and environmental regulations.

We realize the sensitivity of the national scenic area, but this land is hardly in the heart of the gorge. It would be a terrible irony if preservation of the cottonwoods resulted in delayed response to a fire in some other place of true scenic value.

The county has opened the door to rapid resolution of this issue by saying it will approve the port's tree-cutting permits immediately in the event of an emergency. With dozens of forest and range fires already burning in Central and Eastern Oregon, it's no stretch to say emergency conditions are nearly upon us. Indeed, state and federal forestry officials are measuring a number of factors - drought conditions, current fire activity and the likelihood of lightning strikes - to see if an emergency declaration is warranted.

When natural resources and lives are at stake, forest stewards ought to err of the side of protecting the greater good. We urge state and federal forest officials to consider an emergency declaration soon - one that would allow the airport hazard to be eliminated before disaster strikes, not after.