Plan to Salvage Burned Forest Brings Controversy

USA: Plan to Salvage Burned Forest Brings Controversy

Source: The New York Times on the Web, 9 December 2001

MISSOULA, Mont., Dec. 8 — When forest fires swept through the Bitterroot Valley and surrounding mountains south of here in the summer of 2000, they left hundreds of thousands of acres of burned timber, most of it on federal lands.
Now, efforts by the United States Forest Service to hasten the process to salvage more than 46,000 acres of that burned timber for wood products and to protect the forest have sparked controversy. In late November, the Forest Service chief, Dale Bosworth, asked Mark Rey, the Department of Agriculture under secretary for natural resources and environment, to approve his impending decision permitting what many expect to be one of the largest salvage logging proposals in history.  Mr. Rey could sign the decision early next week, and that would effectively end public involvement in the process and eliminate a 45-day period in which the public can appeal the decision to sell the timber. Environmentalists oppose the Bitterroot salvage sale because it involves a large volume of timber and is seen as setting a national precedent for the proposed logging and rehabilitation of other forests burned in the 2000 fire season, when 92,000 fires blackened an estimated 7.4 million acres. Mr. Bosworth said environmental concerns prompted the move to eliminate 45 more days from the process. “It is imperative that we move forward with the project to help restore the land and prevent further environmental degradation,” Mr. Bosworth said. Asking cabinet-level officials to sign off on a decision is not without precedent, Forest Service officials say. The Clinton administration used a similar process to withdraw minerals from the public domain to prevent the New World Mine from being established on public land near Yellowstone National Park. “The appeals process doesn’t apply to secretary-level decisions,” said Alan Campbell, a lawyer for the Department of Agriculture in Missoula. Environmentalists say that rehabilitation of burned land by the Forest Service is unnecessary and a thinly veiled attempt to get large amounts of timber out of the forest as soon as possible. As the charred and downed timber weathers, its value to the wood products industry diminishes. Ellen Engstedt, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association, a trade group, said trees need to be cut soon, because 18 to 24 months after they are burned they start cracking and so lose their value as two by fours and other commercial products. “The Forest Service is already way behind the curve compared to what the state has been able to do on its burned lands,” Ms. Engstedt said. “Sixteen months later they have yet to cut a tree. The trees are right on the edge now and anything that expedites the process is welcome.” Officials say that contracts could be let and that logging could begin late this month. The elimination of a 45-day period for appeals will leave the public with no way to contest the decision save legal action, and so “it further polarizes the issue,” said Robert Ekey, director of the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont. “It forces it into federal court where it’s winner take all.” Conservationists expect Mr. Rey to sign the decision. Mr. Rey was vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association and he helped create, as a chief staff member for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a salvage logging measure passed by Congress in 1995 that disallowed appeals and litigation if a timber sale were deemed for salvage purposes. Mr. Ekey said this was an example of the Bush administration’s efforts to undercut environmental protections, and that it ushered in a new way of doing business on the national forests. “It’s an end-run around the public,” Mr. Ekey said. “And they’ll use it as a precedent. Whenever there’s a controversy they’ll bypass the appeals process.” While the Forest Service has portrayed an urgent need to help the forest recover and prevent damage from erosion, some scientists say the best way for the land to heal is to be left alone. Dr. Wayne Minshall, a professor of ecology at Idaho State University, has studied the effects of fire on streams for 35 years. While ash, mud and burned trees can kill fish and widen channels in streams in the first few years after a fire, the streams recover on their own and become biologically more robust over several more years.”The Forest Service is completely disregarding the value the burned trees have in helping the forest recover,” said Matthew Koehler, an official with the Native ForestNetwork in Missoula and an opponent of the sale. “They are critical to soil and wildlife and they help prevent mudslides.”

Copyright 2001: The New York Times Compagny


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