Down on the Ranch, President Wages War on the Underbrush
Bush Conscripts Aides in Tireless Pursuit of Clearing Ground

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005

CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 30 -- On most of the 365 days he has enjoyed at his secluded ranch here, President Bush's idea of paradise is to hop in his white Ford pickup truck in jeans and work boots, drive to a stand of cedars, and whack the trees to the ground.

If the soil is moist enough, he will light a match and burn the wood. If it is parched, as it is across Texas now, the wood will sit in piles scattered over the 1,600-acre spread until it is safe for a ranch hand to torch -- or until the president can come home and do the honors himself.

Sometimes this activity is the only official news to come out of what aides call the Western White House. For five straight days since Monday, when Bush retreated to the ranch for his Christmas sojourn, a spokesman has announced that the president, in between intelligence briefings, calls to advisers and bicycling, has spent much of his day clearing brush.

This might strike many Washingtonians as a curious pastime. It does burn a lot of calories. But brush clearing is dusty, it is exhausting (the president goes at it in 100 degree-plus heat), and it is earsplitting, requiring earplugs to dull the chain saw's buzz.

For Bush, who is known to spend early-morning hours hacking at unwanted mesquite, cocklebur weeds, hanging limbs and underbrush only to go back for more after lunch, it borders on obsession.

Aides are corralled to help, although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a frequent guest, has escaped brush duty. "The tradecraft she uses to get out of it is highly confidential, and I can't discuss it," said national security adviser Steven J. Hadley. To date, no visiting foreign leaders have been conscripted.

The president "clears brush like he rides his bike," said deputy press secretary Trent Duffy, who has sawed beside Bush. "He goes at it."

Ronald Reagan chopped wood and rode horses, Bush's father sailed off the shore of Kennebunkport, Maine, and Bill Clinton jogged. For George W. Bush, clearing brush projects the image of a cowboy president, a tough rancher fighting the elements to survive. That is, of course, the White House's projection; the president's critics take a dimmer view.

"Most likely he's doing that to show the media he's got a chain saw," joked Larry Mattladge, who raises Black Angus cows three-quarters of a mile from the Bush ranch and built his fence rows out of cedar posts. "It's a man's thing. Brush clearing is not only for the young at heart, it's for the young. It's to show he's a Texan."

Presidential historian Robert Dallek said: "This is part of his macho image. Obviously this is nothing Bush has to do. He's the son of a rich man who doesn't have to spend his time cutting underbrush."

But some of Bush's neighbors in the Crawford area said they understand his pleasure -- even if he doesn't have to do it. "We do it because we have to," said Zach Arias, who with his wife raises cows on 400 acres about 20 miles from town. "But afterwards, you kind of go, 'Wow. I feel good about what I did today.' " White House counselor Dan Bartlett explained it this way: "It's therapeutic for him, I guess. There's very few things he gets to do hands on."

Clearing brush is a lot like weeding the yard, although on a real ranch it is an economic necessity. In central Texas, cedar and mesquite trees are invaders competing for moisture with grass, gobbling water from the soil and hoarding rain and sunlight on their branches. With his livestock's food supply at stake, a farmer could live or die on how well his brush is cleared. Local agronomists say brush control has been a part of rural Texas since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, when the botanical bandits spread across the arid soil.

"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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