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Down on the Ranch, President Wages War on the Underbrush

"It's pretty important," said Charles E. Gilliland, a research economist with the Texas A&M University's Real Estate Center. "If you don't watch out, it just kind of takes over."

Certainly the 1,583 acres of rugged canyons and rocky hillsides, creeks and pasture land on Prairie Chapel Ranch contain a lot of brush. Bush, a creature of habit, is not in danger of finishing the job. The Bush ranch, however, is not a working ranch. The president has kept only a handful of cattle on the property since Kenneth Engelbrecht, who sold him the former hog farm six years ago, stopped leasing back some pasture land that supported a herd of cows.

"What the president is doing is highly recreational," said Gene Hall, spokesman for the Waco-based Texas Farm Bureau, a lobbying group of farmers and ranchers. "Some people just enjoy that kind of outdoor activity. Once you've been cooped up in the Oval Office a couple of weeks, it might be kind of nice."

Clearing brush has taken on new meaning since a rural land rush brought hordes of wealthy city dwellers to these parts to snap up a piece of ranchland for some Texas solitude. Old-time ranchers are fading out in favor of smaller hobby "ranchettes," whose owners make money from deer hunting or wildlife retreats.

The Bushes, whose spread exceeds a ranchette in size, are in good company with celebrities Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew McConaughey, Patrick Swayze and baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. With most of their publicists vacationing this week, it could not be confirmed whether these Texas ranchers enjoy clearing brush.

Real ranchers, who need to clear a whole lot of brush for pasture land, either hire someone to spray herbicides from the air or run an excavator through it. They tend to tend cattle, several said.

Bush, by contrast, practices a selective, do-it-yourself sculpting to enhance his enjoyment of his property, local experts say. He will clear underbrush to preserve beautiful live oaks and pecan trees, or to prepare the 50 acres where Laura Bush is cultivating native grasses, or to help carve nature trails through the ranch's many canyons.

"It's a selective control of the brush," said Sam Middleton, owner of a West Texas ranch brokerage, who added that this enhances a ranch's value.

Then again, there will be times when the president drives around his property and "will see a stand of cedar trees and say 'Let's clear those,' " said Joseph Hagin, Bush's deputy chief of staff, who has been cutting brush with his boss all week. They do not talk a lot of policy over the sound of their chain saws, he said.

Professional brush removal can cost up to $200 an hour. The irony is that many working ranchers cannot afford it in these days of declining profits. Surely, the president could afford to hire professionals. The White House declined to make the ranch manager available to a reporter to explain who, if anyone, clears brush when Bush returns to Washington.

As much as it is a metaphor for presidential vigor, Bush's preoccupation with wielding his chain saw has become fodder for bloggers and other critics who complain that he is isolated and disengaged.

"He shouldn't have time to be clearing brush," said Kay Lucas, a grandmother and antiwar activist who drives 25 miles a day to care for the Crawford Peace House, a gathering spot for Cindy Sheehan and her protest against the war.

After White House press secretary Scott McClellan noted during a vacation in August that although Bush "always enjoys his time in Crawford, he's president 24/7," the Washington blogger Wonkette weighed in with this jab: "Ah, yes, especially when consulting with that little-known Cabinet official, 'Secretary of Clearing Brush.' "

Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.

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