The largest wildfire in modern Oregon history is about to flare up again — this time through potential court battles, protests and possibly congressional debate over new wilderness protections.
In the next few days, U.S. Forest Service officials plan to approve salvage of trees killed by the 2002 Biscuit fire in Southwest Oregon. It may be one of the largest federal logging projects, and activists have mounted a national campaign arguing it would strip older forests critical to wildlife.
President Bush seized on the Biscuit fire while it was burning to call for a campaign to thin overgrown and flammable Western forests. Loggers would cut less than 5 percent of the 500,000 acres encompassed by the fire under terms outlined by the Forest Service last month.
The cutting would yield enough timber to supply about 1 million Americans with wood and paper products for a year. But time is running out because burned trees lose commercial value quickly.
Among the coming developments: Advertisement this week of the five initial sales of Biscuit timber, which would amount to roughly the first 10 percent of wood slated for logging. Auctions will take place a week later, with cutting possible immediately afterward. An administration proposal to Congress to expand the Kalmiopsis Wilderness at the core of the burned area by about a third, a move some see as an attempt to offset criticism of the logging. Rapid appeals and lawsuits by environmental groups seeking to block the cutting, which they say would include the administration’s boldest incursions into roadless tracts set aside by the Clinton administration. Possible protests by activists hoping to hold up logging in older forests reserved for the northern spotted owl and other wildlife. Greenpeace protesters were arrested last month while interfering with federal timber sales in Southern Oregon.
The Forest Service has split its logging decision into three pieces based on the type of land involved — roadless areas, old forest reserves and land designated for commercial logging. That way, activist lawsuits that delay one piece would not necessarily delay the others.
The first timber sales will involve the older reserves and logging lands. An emergency order based on the declining value of the wood will allow cutting to begin as soon as the sales are auctioned rather than waiting until citizen appeals are resolved.
Logging roadless areas
The largest and perhaps most contentious piece of the logging plan remains subject to appeals, so it will take longer to proceed. It targets roadless reaches of the Siskiyou National Forest, which contains the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Most logs would be lifted out by helicopters, so no new roads would be constructed.
“You could not pick a more sensitive area to log than the Siskiyou,” much of it undeveloped and home to rare species, said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society in Seattle.
Officials could have allowed the roadless cutting to proceed immediately, but they said the timber sales would not have been ready until appeals are resolved anyway, and officials did not want to eliminate opportunities for opponents to raise concerns.
It’s the first time the administration has proposed cutting in roadless areas in the lower 48 given protection by the Clinton administration. Court decisions have left those protections in the air, however, and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said the logging makes sense because it would involve only dead trees with minimal environmental impact.
A hint from the Bitterroot
Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest may offer a hint of how the Biscuit logging may or may not proceed.
After wildfires in 2000, officials there called for salvaging about half as much timber as planned in the Biscuit project. But they dropped the bulk of the cutting when faced with lawsuits by environmental activists.
David Bayles of the Eugene-based Pacific Rivers Council, one of the organizations that sued, said the timber industry wanted the most accessible logs and did not insist on logging roadless areas as forest managers had suggested.
“I would not be a bit surprised to see the same thing happen again on Biscuit,” he said.
Even now, the Bitterroot work is not done. As of early this year, logging contracts had been issued for about three-fourths of the Bitterroot timber, Bitterroot National Forest spokeswoman Dixie Dies said. About 60 percent of other restoration — such as rehabilitating eroding roads — remains unfinished because of funding shortages.
Fuel for future fires
A Forest Service analysis determined that putting the Biscuit timber on the market could depress prices by about 10 percent. The deterioration of the wood since 2002 and the possibility of further court-imposed delay may cause fewer logging companies to be interested.
“What we won’t know for (a few) weeks yet is whether there is stomach to bid on this with the risk of litigation and everything else,” said Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland.
Environmental consultants in Eugene said the Forest Service would probably lose money on the cutting. West questioned that analysis but said even if the government had to invest in cutting now, it might save taxpayers money later.
Wood left behind may feed future fires, he said, costing more to fight and harming wildlife habitat. He said it makes sense to use the dead trees to supply the nation’s rising consumption of wood products.
“If we’re not going to be using this, we’re going to be cutting green trees somewhere else, whether it’s on federal or private land or in some other country,” he said.
There are similarities between the Biscuit and Bitterroot salvage efforts, West said, although Biscuit trees may hold value longer because many are bigger. The Biscuit logging may also stand a better chance in court because new laws allow judges to weigh the risks of doing nothing, he said.
Beyond the cutting, the administration plans to send Congress a proposal to expand the Kalmiopsis Wilderness by about 64,000 acres, said Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture. He said the proposal would reach lawmakers in enough time for Congress to consider it this session.
Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; email@example.com