The post-fire controversy pits timber companies eager to log against environmentalists who warn that hasty salvage operations could further damage soils and streams and limit future management options in the fragile forests east of the Cascade Mountains.
The U.S. Forest Service comes down somewhere in the middle, though Chief Jack Ward Thomas told a congressional subcommittee in Boise Aug. 29 that the agency "cannot, in my opinion, simply step back and wait for "nature" to take its course."
Wildfire scorched about 1.5 million acres in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and portions of Utah and Nevada this summer. All but 200,000 acres was federally managed land.
Thomas said he knew some critics would question any aftermath that includes cutting trees. But he made it clear that the Forest Service won't delay efforts to restore burned forests to some semblance of their historic condition through salvage logging, prescribed fire, mechanical removal of dead wood and thinning of densely stocked stands.
In late August, timber corporations took the offensive, buying ads in 12 daily newspapers and spots on more than 30 radio stations in Washington, Idaho and Montana. The ads blamed conservationists in part for this summer's fires.
"Sadly, this year's tragic losses may be but a preview unless public-land managers are immediately allowed to harvest dead and dying timber on our national forests," warned one ad, billed as "a message from the Forest Workers of the Intermountain West."
"The irresponsible actions of a few radicals have blocked even the most modest efforts to return to safe and healthy condition through thinning and selective logging," the ad accused.
The timber industry also is pushing the government to authorize intensive thinning operations aimed at averting future fires in thick stands weakened by drought, fire suppression and insects.
Mike Bader, executive director of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says the timber industry and its allies in Congress are preying on people's fear of devastating wildfires to stack the decks in favor of massive salvage logging and "forest health" thinning operations.
"It's not as bad as the timber beasts say," responds an ad prepared by the alliance. "Where there's smoke there's liars."
"Are we saving the forests? Or are we saving the trees for the timber industry?" Bader asked at an Aug. 29 news conference in Boise. He said his group probably would challenge salvage sales through the Forest Service appeals process.
"The timber industry is taking advantage of a void in public understanding," said Lisa Lombardi, a wildlife biologist in Moscow, Idaho. "Fires are not like logging. Many species depend on snags and downed logs. Those snags left on the land are the only remaining biomass' after fire sweeps through, she said.
But the rush to salvage is on. Sam Gehr, supervisor of the Okanogan National Forest, predicted in August, while fires still raged in eastern Washington, that 30 million board-feet of timber could be salvaged from his forest.
That provoked a letter of protest from 14 conservation groups to Jeff Blackwood, director of the federal Eastside Ecosystem Management Project, which is preparing a scientific study of all federal lands in the Interior Columbia Basin and a comprehensive management plan (see accompanying story).
"We caution you not to put the Forest Service in the position of defending how your management is going to restore acres or limit future fires at this time," the conservationists wrote. "The (Project) is attempting to deal with these complex issues, and promotion of aggressive salvage or thinning, especially lacking a landscape perspective, is highly premature."
Instead, the conservationists suggested that the Forest Service use the 1994 fires to educate the public about the role of fire in Eastside forests. "When hot, dry conditions occur, Eastside forests burn. These fires are a normal ecological event, if viewed from a historical perspective."
Blackwood said at a mid-August meeting of the Eastside Ecosystem team that he "has no authority or expectation to jump into the middle of decisions on fire rehabilitation."
Environmentalists who urge a go-slow approach say that promises of high-volume salvage sales, like Gehr's, put them on the defensive. "This kind of story is putting great pressure on environmentalists," said Jere Payton of Oroville, Wash. "We can't even respond because then we will be blamed if the 30 million board-feet doesn't materialize."
Conservationists are trying to counter the timber industry's ad campaign with their own logic. For instance, they say that much of the Tyee Creek fire, which scorched 135,000 acres in eastern Washington, burned mainly in previously logged stands, not pristine wilderness - stands where past management practices and eight years of drought had left insect-damaged trees vulnerable.
Tom Graham, who is overseeing short-term rehabilitation of the 135,000-acre Tyee Creek fire on the Wenatchee National Forest, says critics are right, to a point.
"It's way more complicated than either of those generalizations," Graham said. "If you look at gross area burned, I'm guessing that easily more than 50 percent was in areas where we've been allowed to manage." But within those areas, some untouched watersheds also burned, Graham said. "The fire was influenced in some cases by past management activities, in other cases not at all."
Environmental lobbyists worry that Northwest lawmakers will attach a surprise rider to the 1995 Forest Service appropriations bill seeking to capitalize on this summer's fires. Among the possibilities, says Jim Owens of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, are "a salvage bill disguised as a forest health bill or a fuels-management amendment that is really a thinning-and-high-grading bill."
At an Aug. 29 field hearing in Boise, Forest Service Chief Thomas stressed that the forest health problems plaguing the Intermountain West had their beginnings more than a century ago. He said the forests have suffered further from drought, exclusion of fire and removal of the healthiest, most fire-resistant trees from the ecosystem.
"The forest health problems and associated high intensity wildfires are indicators of an ecosystem that is not in balance, and the concerns will not go away when cooler and wetter fall weather arrives," the chief said. In the long run, he said, a comprehensive strategy must await the completion of the scientific study that is part of the Eastside Ecosystem Management Project under way in Walla Walla. n