The Forest Service's rush to cut Montana's burned Bitterroot forest
HAMILTON, Mont. - At a forest policy conference near here last October, Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the U.S. Forest Service, assured Montanans that the Bush administration is not out to manage the national forests top-down from Washington, D.C.
Two months later, when Rey signed the Burn Area Recovery Plan for the Bitterroot National Forest, which spreads through the valley and mountain ranges around this small town, he did exactly the opposite of what he promised.
The Recovery Plan was a major decision, calling for one of the largest timber sales ever in the Northern Rockies - about 176 million board-feet pulled from 40,000 acres, mostly burned trees left by the fiery summer of 2000 (HCN, 5/7/01: Back into the woods). The sale amounted to more than 18 times the Bitterroot Forest's recent annual cut.
But Rey's action tried to close down the chance for the public to appeal the plan through normal Forest Service channels.
That was illegal, a federal judge ruled on Jan. 7.
Calling Rey's action "presumptuous ... strained ... mystical" and undemocratic, Federal District Judge Donald W. Molloy ordered the Recovery Plan put on hold until the Forest Service goes through the normal process of allowing, and reacting to, public appeals.
It was a rebuke not only to Rey, but also to Forest Service leaders, including agency Chief Dale Bosworth, who asked Rey to try the shortcut.
"It's a victory that extends way beyond the borders of the Bitterroot Forest. It ensures the public will have meaningful input on Forest Service projects across the country," says Larry Campbell, director of Friends of the Bitterroot, a grassroots group with about 750 members.
The Friends and six other environmental groups, including The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, won the ruling with lawsuits in the Missoula court.
"We were very concerned that the Bush administration would begin regularly circumventing the appeals process by bumping controversial Forest Service actions up to Mark Rey for signing," says Mark Anderson, a forest analyst for The Wilderness Society. The courtroom victory will "prevent the administration from gutting the appeals process."
Lawsuits expectedFifteen months of study, public meetings and comments from 4,400 people went into drafting the Recovery Plan. Supporters said it would help the forest and the local economy rebound from the summer of 2000, when fire swept across a total of 365,000 acres of federal, state and private land here and destroyed more than 70 residences.
The Recovery Plan "was an opportunity to take that tragedy and turn it around to help people and the environment," says Debra Walker, a leader of Timber Workers United, a group of about 50 people involved in local logging.
The Forest Service was in a hurry to get started on the plan, which mixed the harvesting of burned and unburned trees with reseeding, erosion control and other post-fire forest rehab. The Forest Service estimated it would generate several thousand jobs and $75 million in economic benefit. The agency maintained that the burned ponderosa pines, which make valuable lumber, will begin to deteriorate this summer, and that logging should begin immediately. Forest rehab work should also begin quickly, it said, especially the reseeding of thousands of acres where pine cones were incinerated.
The normal process for appeals would have taken another three or four months, and the agency was already anticipating lawsuits from environmentalists. "We didn't feel the appeals process would contribute to a better decision," says Bitterroot deputy supervisor Spike Thompson. "It was obvious it would have to be decided in court."
The environmental groups questioned many aspects of the plan, from the economics to the science, including how fast the burned trees lose value, how many logging jobs would go to out-of-state companies and whether so much reseeding is necessary.
Claiming the forest would recover fine with less activity, they voiced concern about impacts to wildlife, notably the native bull trout, protected by the Endangered Species Act; intrusion into roadless areas; and further depletion of old growth habitat, where the valuable big trees are.
The plan addressed some of these concerns. It called for more than half the acreage to be harvested with helicopters. No logging was to be done within 300 feet of critical streams, and some sensitive areas were to be logged in winter when the ground is frozen.
But a researcher at the Forest Service's Missoula Fire Ecology Laboratory, who asks not to be named, concedes there wasn't enough time to do adequate research on the impacts of so much activity: "The Bitterroot (forest staff) had two years to make a decision when it needs 10 years to complete the research."
"Analysis paralysis"It seemed to many conservationists that Rey had reverted to his former career - 18 years as a timber-industry lobbyist and a period as a congressional staffer instrumental in passing the Salvage Rider in 1995, which authorized a round of salvage timber sales around the West, immune from public appeals and lawsuits.
But, a streamlined public process has long been called for by some managers, including Chief Bosworth, who used to be the regional forester for Montana and Idaho. Bosworth has often said the Forest Service suffers from an "analysis paralysis," which he defines as "the difficult, costly, confusing and seemingly endless processes" required by all the laws and regulations.
"Too frequently, these processes combine to keep on-the-ground work from ever actually being accomplished, even very small projects or projects of great environmental merit," Bosworth says. "The inability to complete projects can have a detrimental effect on the land."
With the Recovery Plan, the Forest Service increased the likelihood of public rebellion by bundling so much activity into a single decision. Activists say an appeals process would allow environmental groups to separate out the riskiest logging while permitting some forest rehab to proceed. Instead, "they made it an all-or-nothing package," says Friends of the Bitterroot's Campbell.
The Friends group has a plan for smaller-scale logging and more emphasis on protecting streams. "None of the groups are zero-cut. None of us want no salvage logging," says Bob Ekey, head of the Northern Rockies office for The Wilderness Society.
In contrast to the federal process, salvage logging has proceeded on Montana state forests in the area, raising $3.5 million for the state's public schools (HCN, 4/9/01: Montana gets a taste of old-time logging).
Any activity on the national forest will be further delayed, either by the Forest Service conducting the appeals process, or by the agency asking a higher court to reverse Judge Molloy's strongly worded decision. The Bitterroot shortcut is turning into the normal long way around.
Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana. Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Friends of the Bitterroot, Darby, Montana, director Larry Campbell, 406/821-3110;
- Bitterroot National Forest, Missoula, Montana, deputy forest supervisor Spike Thompson, 406/363-7109.
To read the Recovery Plan and related documents, www.fs.fed.us/r1/-bitterrootrecovery/recovery_index.htm/.