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Expert doubts Biscuit timber will be logged
The burned forest is decaying and may lose its value before a plan is reached, a professor says
One of the most authoritative voices for aggressive logging of trees scorched by the 2002 Biscuit wildfire in Southern Oregon said he doubts much of the timber will ever be cut because it will have lost its value to decay.
Oregon State University forestry professor John Sessions had calculated that rapid salvage logging could earn enough to pay for both the costs of fighting the massive blaze and replanting charred hillsides. The Siskiyou National Forest used his analysis to boost its proposed cutting more than fivefold.
But the federal process for mounting logging operations could take until the summer to complete. And Sessions told more than 150 people at a forum in Eugene this week that the burned timber deteriorates so quickly 40 percent will be worthless to sawmills by this summer. It will no longer carry enough value to cut and remove by helicopter, the best way to minimize damage to the forest floor.
"I think there will be nothing done, because the clock will have run out," he said at the public meeting Tuesday night sponsored by the Cascadia Wildlands Project, a Eugene activist group.
He also said fast-growing brush will soon eclipse any opportunity to speed the forest's recovery by replanting burned slopes.
His comments highlight the mounting pressure on federal forest managers to complete a recovery plan for the nearly 500,000 acres affected by the Biscuit blaze. They hope to release a final plan by mid-April so salvage logging can start this summer, said Siskiyou forest spokeswoman Judy McHugh.
But she acknowledged appeals and lawsuits by logging opponents could delay that.
Much is at stake. The region laced by wild rivers holds the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and some 240 plant and animal species that exist nowhere else. Nearby communities value the rugged scenery and what could be hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of timber.
The Forest Service's draft plan proposes logging 518 million board feet, one of the largest federal cuts ever. It would come off 29,000 acres, about 6 percent of the area within the fire boundaries.
Conservationists argue Sessions and the Bush administration have prodded the Forest Service to log too much. Cutting and replanting will create artificial landscapes ill-suited for wildlife and more flammable than a diverse natural forest, they say.
"We want to see projects based on science, not projects based on what the timber industry wants," said Josh Laughlin of the Cascadia Wildlands Project.
The forum included a counterpoint by retired OSU professor Robert Beschta, who said the economic value of salvage logging must be weighed against environmental goals for the region. People may not restore a forest the way nature would.
"Yes, we can grow trees," he said. "But from a holistic standpoint, that doesn't mean we've restored the system."
Beschta is the lead author of a report repeatedly cited in court decisions to delay or halt salvage logging.
Western forests evolved with wildfires and can recover on their own, he said. Human intervention may aid or speed recovery, he said, but it should not work against natural processes. Large trees valuable to loggers are also vital to wildlife, he said.
The Forest Service's proposed plan follows Beschta's advice, McHugh said.
Activists suspect the Bush administration may ask Congress to speed cutting by curtailing environmental rules -- as Congress did after wildfires in 1994. No Bush administration officials or lawmakers have proposed such a move.
But Sessions, contracted by Douglas County to examine the costs of delay, provided possible ammunition for such an effort. He said Biscuit's aftermath constitutes an "extreme emergency" not recognized by environmental rules. Trees cut immediately might be valuable enough to salvage by helicopter without new roads, he said.
Revenue, in turn, could pay for planting seedlings and controlling competition from brush -- either with herbicides or by hand. That could speed regrowth of large trees essential to protected wildlife such as northern spotted owls, he said.
A Douglas fir might reach that size in 100 years instead of 160, he said.
But helicopter costs are so high and wood decays so quickly that removing a two-foot-wide, scorched tree 1.75 miles from a road will cost more than it's worth after three years, Sessions said.
"The costs of delay are extreme," he said. "You lose the options you have."
He said that even if the Forest Service's Biscuit plan clears legal challenges, the short-handed agency may struggle to plan timber sales in time. And he said replanting must also move fast, before prolific brush and leafy trees shade out seedlings.
"They're already on the brink of being out of time," he said.
Forest Service economists calculated that the much of the timber scorched by the Biscuit fire will still be valuable enough to salvage -- 67 percent of it by helicopter -- if logging begins this summer, McHugh said.
But the Forest Service's draft recovery plan carries a cautionary note. After the 1987 Silver fire burned some of the same acreage as the Biscuit fire later did in 2002, it says, there was little funding for the follow-up work to keep new seedlings growing quickly.
Their growth slowed. Tinder left by salvage logging from that fire fueled the Biscuit blaze, which then burned more intensely and consumed more old forest.
Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; firstname.lastname@example.org
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