One of the largest timber sales in history uncovers old animosity, and undermines the Roadless Rule

Oregon forest activists’ worst fears were realized in mid-November, when the Forest Service proposed the salvage logging of 518 million board-feet of timber from areas of the Siskiyou National Forest blackened by last year’s Biscuit Fire.

The proposed salvage project, if it comes to pass, would be one of the largest timber sales ever offered in the Northwest. By allowing logging in inventoried roadless areas, it also tests the Clinton administration’s fiercely contested Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The rule, adopted with strong public support in the administration’s final weeks, prohibits commercial logging in national forest roadless areas.

The fast-moving Biscuit Fire, which burned at varying intensities inside a 500,000-acre perimeter, was the largest in Oregon’s recorded history. It burned mostly in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and adjacent roadless areas that are home to some of the rarest plants and most diverse ecological communities in the world.

The Forest Service’s “preferred alternative” in the original Biscuit Fire draft environmental impact statement treaded softly on the issue of salvage logging, proposing the logging of just 96 million board-feet of timber on 5,170 acres, all of it outside inventoried roadless areas.

That EIS was stopped in its tracks in July, shortly before it was to go to the printer, after a team of foresters from Oregon State University, headed by forestry engineer John Sessions, released a report proposing far more salvage logging (HCN, 9/1/03: In fire's aftermath, salvage logging makes a comeback). The Sessions report, requested and paid for by timber-dependent Douglas County, called for intensive salvage logging, followed by replanting of the burn area with Douglas fir seedlings and the application of herbicides to control competing vegetation. It argued that salvage logging, if undertaken promptly in roadless areas and other areas presently off-limits to logging, could produce 2.5 billion board-feet of timber.

In response, Northwest Regional Forester Linda Goodman directed planners to develop two new alternatives reflecting the Sessions report. The Forest Service’s new preferred alternative increases the proposed cut more than fivefold, and calls for logging 29,000 acres, including 12,000 acres in roadless areas. The plan seems to be on a fast track, with a public comment period ending Jan. 5 and a final decision due out soon thereafter.

The agency declined to delay its EIS to consider two reports commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and provided to the Forest Service in September. One, prepared by scientists at the Conservation Biology Institute in Corvallis, Ore., detailed the many ecological risks posed by salvage logging, and stressed the ecological value of vast tracts of standing dead trees. “Any proposal to shift the region away from its natural vegetation pattern to heavily managed conifer plantations is hugely misguided because it fails to recognize the conservation values of a region of global significance,” the scientists wrote.

The other study, prepared by the economic consulting group ECO Northwest, predicted that the low value of the timber in the Biscuit Fire area, and the high cost of logging it, could cost the federal treasury $100,000 for each 1 million board-feet of timber logged.

The roadless rule, meanwhile, is in limbo. In Wyoming in July, a federal judge had blocked implementation of the rule. U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer ruled that the rule created “de facto wilderness,” thereby violating the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.

The Bush administration has chosen not to defend the rule from legal challenges by states and timber interests. But the Wilderness Society and other conservation groups immediately appealed Brimmer’s ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. That appeal is pending.

In Oregon, the Forest Service’s new draft EIS acknowledges that “Extensive salvage harvest and planting would detract from the natural, undisturbed character and could reduce the potential for wilderness.” Siskiyou Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy, who led the national team that crafted the Roadless Rule, says the salvage proposal steers clear of the highest-quality roadless areas. “We know how important it is to have landscapes that are contiguous and not broken up,” he told The Register-Guard in Eugene. The logging, he said, would accelerate the forest’s recovery: “Some of the areas of the fire burned very hot and of large enough acreage that it will be decades, if not hundreds of years before they reforest naturally.”

Some southern Oregon timber company officials are skeptical that the charred timber can be brought to market before insects and decay destroy what’s left of its value. And Oregon conservationists vow to wage a new war in the woods if the Forest Service pushes ahead with its salvage logging plan.

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.

The Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement online at www.biscuitfire.com

To comment by Jan. 5 e-mail r6_biscuit@fs.fed.us, fax 530-493-1775, or mail Scott Conroy, Forest Supervisor, c/o ACT2, P.O. Box 377, Happy Camp, CA 96039.