GRANTS PASS, Oregon The U.S. Forest Service signed off on a plan Thursday to log thousands of acres of trees killed by a huge forest fire in 2002 a decision that will probably bring a legal challenge from environmentalists.
Under the plan, loggers will be allowed to cut 370 million board feet of timber, enough to build 24,000 homes, from about 20,000 acres of federal land over the next two years. That is far less than the timber industry had sought.
The area in the rugged Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon was burned two summers ago when four fires started by lightning merged into the nation’s biggest and costliest blaze of the year. It burned across 500,000 acres, threatened 17,000 people, and cost $153 million to fight.
The question of what to do with the burned timber has sparked intense political and scientific debates, and environmentalists have already indicated that they may challenge the plan in court.
Timber industry officials have also criticized the plan, saying it does not go far enough to prevent more wildfires.
Environments argue that although the trees are dead, they still provide wildlife habitat. In addition, they say logging areas damaged by fire causes erosion that spills choking silt into salmon streams.
The industry and the Bush administration argue that the dead trees would provide much-needed timber for mills starved by logging reductions imposed to protect wildlife. They say that selling more timber would pay for reforestation efforts and that harvesting dead timber removes fuel for future wildfires.
Some activists have said they will go into the woods to block harvest of old growth trees.
Timber companies did not appear enthusiastic about bidding on the timber, which has been damaged by rot and insects since the fire.
“Some of the things that need to be factored in by these companies are not only the deterioration of the quality of the wood but the risk of putting money down and not being able to operate, whether it be from court actions or civil disobedience and ecoterrorism,” said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry organization.