USA, Oregon — Three government SUVs guarded a road to nowhere. Nearby, amiddle-aged couple camping out in a trailer manned a round-the-clock checkpointnext to a locked gate, on the watch for environmental protesters.
A few miles beyond, the drone of chainsaws rose from a deep ravine while ahovering helicopter plucked blackened logs from the floor of the burned forestand ferried them to the nearest road.
Begun late last summer, the logging is the first in the country on nearly 60million acres of remote national forest land protected by a Clintonadministration decree that was set aside last year by the Bush administration.The operation was too far along to be stopped by a Sept. 19 federal court orderreinstating the Clinton edict.
Ever since a huge 2002 fire called Biscuit swept across the outback ofsouthwest Oregon, burning a swath of forest the size of Orange County, thisprized landscape has been at the forefront of conflict over Bush administrationforest policies dealing with roadless backcountry and wildfire.
One of the most contentious issues is whether government should leave aforest alone after it has burned, letting the trees decay and nurture a gradualrebirth, as conservationists advocate. Or whether it ought to log thecommercially valuable dead timber and replant, as the Bush administrationdesires.
It is a debate likely to intensify across the West, where millions of acresof forest burn every year, the fires spread by drought. Already, a third of thetimber harvested in U.S. national forests consists of salvage – trees killed ordamaged in wildfires, insect outbreaks or other natural disasters.
To environmentalists, the Biscuit fire became an excuse for the U.S. ForestService to pursue logging on thousands of acres of untrammeled wild land studdedwith virgin, old-growth timber killed by the flames.
“Biscuit is a battering ram going through the last best places, some ofthe most important ecological lands,” said Rolf Skar, the pony-tailedcampaign director for the Siskiyou Project, an Oregon conservation group.
To the Bush administration, the lengthy environmental reviews and lawsuitsthat complicated the Forest Service’s plans to log a fraction of the burnedacreage symbolize all that is wrong with forest regulations.
“What does it say to the world at large if we meet our wood supply needsfrom the New and Old World tropics because we’re too aesthetically pure toharvest even dead trees on our own land?” asked Agriculture UndersecretaryMark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service.
The administration is backing a Biscuit-inspired bill, passed by the Houseand pending in the Senate, that would make future salvage logging of burnedforests much easier by greatly restricting environmental assessments of suchprojects.
The struggle over the fate of roadless lands was not finally resolved by theU.S. District Court decision, which revived Clinton’s road-building and loggingban in nearly a third of the country’s national forest system.
The Bush administration could readopt its rule – which lets states take thelead in deciding to keep or drop the roadless protections – after undertakingthe environmental reviews the court said it needed to conduct. Or, Rey said, itmight use a separate, existing law, the Administrative Procedures Act, to letstates move ahead with their requests.
The Biscuit fire burned country that has stirred passions for decades. Therehave been periodic efforts to make it into a national park. The first acts ofanti-logging civil disobedience in the U.S. were staged here two decades ago.
A ruggedly steep and ancient landscape, known as the Klamath-Siskiyou, thearea sits at the junction of three mountain ranges, the Great Basin andCalifornia’s Central Valley, making it an ecological melting pot. The 1.8million-acre Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which dips into California,contains a greater variety of plant life than any other national forest in thecountry, harboring tree species found nowhere else.
In August, four years after the Biscuit fire leapt across more than a quarterof the Rogue-Siskiyou, protesters were still setting up blockades, trying tostop the final timber projects planned for the burned area, logging in tworoadless areas.
Forest Service officials say the projects aren’t destroying the land’swilderness qualities because the wood is being hauled out by helicopter and nonew roads have been constructed.
“We’re obviously not taking the logs out of the heart of a roadless area,gutting its potential,” said Rob Shull, ecosystem staff officer for theRogue-Siskiyou.
As he spoke, a big red and white helicopter repeatedly dropped down intoheavily wooded Mike’s Gulch and then rose like a giant thumping raptor trailingits prey – a twin set of charred logs dangling from the end of a 250-foot-longsteel cable.
The chopper was owned by Columbia Helicopters Inc., a major GOP donor thatruns the world’s biggest helicopter logging operation.
Nearby, the stack of timber waiting for trucks was as big as a three-storybuilding, the great burned corpses of Douglas fir trees at least a century old.Some had started life well before the American Revolution.
“It’s the food for a new forest, the last place we should be going forwood,” argued Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist who works withconservation groups in southern Oregon.
In congressional testimony earlier this year, University of Washington forestresources professor Jerry Franklin, an old-growth expert, said downed logs andstanding dead trees provide important habitat for as much as two-thirds offorest animal life.
“From an ecological perspective, it is better to harvest living treesfrom an intact forest than to remove dead trees from an intensely burned site,”he told a House resources subcommittee.
But a year after the blaze, Oregon State University forestry professor JohnSessions issued a report, financed by a timber-dependent southern Oregon county,that concluded it was economically worthwhile to harvest an enormous amount ofdead wood from the burned land – 2 billion board feet. Unless extensive loggingand replanting occurred, much of the blackened forest would permanently turn tobrush, Sessions argued.
Then, last January, an OSU graduate student released a paper that foundotherwise, concluding that earlier Biscuit salvage logging had destroyed treeseedlings naturally sprouting in abundance after the fire.
Sessions and other forestry faculty attacked the student’s research as flawedand tried unsuccessfully to block its final publication in the journal Science,prompting cries of censorship.