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Forest Service eases pressure to log roadless areas
By JEFF BARNARD
GRANTS PASS, Ore. - The U.S. Forest Service has backed off trying to sell timber in the most controversial stands burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire, deciding against an emergency declaration to speed up logging in roadless areas that environmentalists and some scientists want left alone.
The decision decreases the likelihood any logging could begin this year in roadless areas.
If the timber sales are auctioned on schedule July 8, administrative appeals would not run their course until September, when heavy helicopters needed to remove the logs are likely to be busy fighting forest fires. By late fall, snow and rain become a problem.
Sparked by lightning, the Biscuit fire burned nearly 500,000 acres in southwestern Oregon in 2002, mostly on the Siskiyou National Forest, making it the biggest fire in the nation that year.
It became the focus of an intense debate over whether it is better to harvest dead trees to create jobs and accelerate reforestation, or to leave them standing and let nature take its course for the benefit of fish, wildlife and clean water.
Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy has endorsed a plan, expected to receive final approval in coming weeks, to harvest 370 million board feet, enough to build 24,000 homes, from 19,465 acres over the next two years.
He requested an emergency exemption from administrative appeals for 105 million board feet.
Regional Forester Linda Goodman decided not to push logging this summer on 24.6 million board feet of timber within roadless areas because timber sale preparation has not been finished, said Forest Service spokesman Tom Lavagnino.
Meanwhile, sales are ready to go on 80.4 million board feet in less controversial areas.
Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics suggested the Bush administration did not want to risk losing a court battle settling conflicting rulings over the so-called roadless rule before the presidential election in November.
"They get to talk tough about going into roadless areas in the (environmental impact statement) and the like for their rural southwest Oregon constituency, but when push comes to shove they back off because they know they're going to lose in court," Stahl said.
The 80.4 million board feet granted emergency status - roughly the amount proposed by the Siskiyou before it was boosted under pressure by timber interests - may be all that ever comes out of Biscuit, Stahl added.
The rest may rot beyond the desire of the timber industry to harvest it while appeals and lawsuits are argued.
Imposed in the final days of the Clinton administration, the roadless rule restricts logging in 58.5 million acres of remote stands that comprise a third of the national forests.
Environmentalists and some scientists believe the rule is an important protection for clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and healthy forests, but the timber industry and some GOP lawmakers criticize it for leaving millions of acres vulnerable to catastrophic fire by restricting logging.
A federal judge in Wyoming has overturned the rule in a lawsuit brought by the timber industry. Meanwhile, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Oregon, has upheld the rule.
In a letter dated June 3, Goodman granted emergency status to 11 timber sales comprising 80.4 million board feet that lie within so-called matrix areas designated for logging under the Northwest Forest Plan, and old growth forest reserves where fish and wildlife habitat are the top priorities.
She cited the potential loss of 17.6 million board feet of timber worth $4.4 million to rot and insects if logging is delayed.
Goodman denied emergency status for 24.6 million board feet lying within inventoried roadless areas.
The emergency declaration allows logging to go forward while the regional forester's office considers administrative appeals from conservation groups.
That forces them to confront the tougher test of asking a judge to impose an injunction to stop the logging while the case is heard.
"From our perspective, it all is an emergency situation, especially given the fact that such a small portion of the fire area is proposed for treatment," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group.
Todd True, a lawyer for Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm, said they have not decided whether to sue, and are still trying to persuade the Forest Service to adopt a less aggressive plan.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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