Burned forest logged

Site in Oregon is focus of environmental clash

October 22, 2006|By Bettina Boxall | Bettina Boxall,Los Angeles Times

SELMA, ORE. -- Three government SUVs guarded a road to nowhere. Nearby, a middle-aged couple camping out in a trailer manned a round-the-clock checkpoint next to a locked gate, on the watch for environmental protesters.

A few miles beyond, the drone of chainsaws rose from a deep ravine while a hovering helicopter plucked blackened logs from the floor of the burned forest and ferried them to the nearest road.

Begun late last summer, the logging is the first in the country on nearly 60 million acres of remote national forest land protected by a Clinton administration 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 order reinstating the Clinton edict.

Ever since a huge 2002 fire called Biscuit swept across the outback of southwest Oregon, burning a swath of forest the size of Orange County, this prized landscape has been at the forefront of conflict over Bush administration forest policies dealing with roadless backcountry and wildfire.

One of the most contentious issues is whether government should leave a forest alone after it has burned, letting the trees decay and nurture a gradual rebirth, as conservationists advocate. Or whether it ought to log the commercially valuable dead timber and replant, as the Bush administration desires.

It is a debate likely to intensify across the West, where millions of acres of forest burn every year, the fires spread by drought. Already, a third of the timber harvested in U.S. national forests consists of salvage - trees killed or damaged in wildfires, insect outbreaks or other natural disasters.

To environmentalists, the Biscuit fire became an excuse for the U.S. Forest Service to pursue logging on thousands of acres of untrammeled wild land studded with virgin, old-growth timber killed by the flames.

"Biscuit is a battering ram going through the last best places, some of the most important ecological lands," said Rolf Skar, the pony-tailed campaign director for the Siskiyou Project, an Oregon conservation group.

To the Bush administration, the lengthy environmental reviews and lawsuits that complicated the Forest Service's plans to log a fraction of the burned acreage symbolize all that is wrong with forest regulations.

"What does it say to the world at large if we meet our wood supply needs from the New and Old World tropics because we're too aesthetically pure to harvest even dead trees on our own land?" asked Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service.

The administration is backing a Biscuit-inspired bill, passed by the House and pending in the Senate, that would make future salvage logging of burned forests much easier by greatly restricting environmental assessments of such projects.

The struggle over the fate of roadless lands was not finally resolved by the U.S. District Court decision, which revived Clinton's road-building and logging ban in nearly a third of the country's national forest system.

The Bush administration could readopt its rule - which lets states take the lead in deciding to keep or drop the roadless protections - after undertaking the environmental reviews the court said it needed to conduct. Or, Rey said, it might use a separate, existing law, the Administrative Procedures Act, to let states move ahead with their requests.

The Biscuit fire burned country that has stirred passions for decades. There have been periodic efforts to make it into a national park. The first acts of anti-logging civil disobedience in the U.S. were staged here two decades ago.

A ruggedly steep and ancient landscape, known as the Klamath-Siskiyou, the area sits at the junction of three mountain ranges, the Great Basin and California's Central Valley, making it an ecological melting pot. The 1.8 million-acre Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which dips into California, contains a greater variety of plant life than any other national forest in the country, harboring tree species found nowhere else.

In August, four years after the Biscuit fire leapt across more than a quarter of the Rogue-Siskiyou, protesters were still setting up blockades, trying to stop the final timber projects planned for the burned area, logging in two roadless areas.

Forest Service officials say the projects aren't destroying the land's wilderness qualities because the wood is being hauled out by helicopter and no new 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 the Rogue-Siskiyou.

As he spoke, a big red and white helicopter repeatedly dropped down into heavily wooded Mike's Gulch and then rose like a giant thumping raptor trailing its prey - a twin set of charred logs dangling from the end of a 250-foot-long steel cable.

The chopper was owned by Columbia Helicopters Inc., a major GOP donor that runs the world's biggest helicopter logging operation.

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