SELMA, Oregon — Six inches of snow have fallen overnight in the Siskiyou Mountains on this last weekend in March. For the moment, the forest west of this small southwest Oregon town is silent. The scores of protesters who temporarily blocked loggers from getting to fire-killed trees in the Siskiyou National Forest are gone, blocked by security guards, a Forest Service closure notice and a new steel gate.
Tom Lavagnino, a Forest Service public affairs officer, steers his rig up the snowy road that leads to the popular Babyfoot Lake-Kalmiopsis Wilderness trailhead. Trees killed nearly three years ago in the lightning-sparked Biscuit Fire — and toppled by loggers during the past three weeks — lie charred and scattered like pickup sticks along the road. Thirteen miles in, less than a mile from the wilderness boundary, he reaches a cutting unit in the Fiddler timber sale. Suddenly, the revving of a chainsaw breaks the silence. Even in deep snow, contract loggers are felling and bucking trees.
The Biscuit Fire ignited on July 13, 2002, when lightning sparked the first of five fires in the Siskiyou National Forest. Over the next four weeks, driven by strong winds and record high temperatures, the blazes merged, eventually raging over 308,000 acres (see correction). It became the largest wildfire in Oregon’s recorded history, costing $155 million to control.
The fire burned mostly within the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness and adjacent large roadless areas. This half-million-acre knot of wildlands straddling the Oregon-California border is home to scores of rare plants, including the Brewer’s spruce, which is found nowhere else. It’s one of the most diverse conifer forests in the world.
Nearly 300,000 acres burned at high intensity, killing 75 percent or more of all vegetation. But these forests evolved with fire. By the spring of 2003, snow-white trilliums were sprouting even in the blackened Babyfoot Lake basin, where virtually every tree burned. Now, at lower elevations, pale fawn lilies bloom by the hundreds on moist ground near streams and road cuts, the shiny leaves of red-barked madrone sprout from charred stumps, and the forest echoes with the woodpecker’s staccato drill.
Life has returned to the Biscuit. So have the loggers, intent on wresting value from the towering black snags, some of them more than three feet in diameter. And the protesters have returned, too, arguing that burned forests should be allowed to recover naturally, without commercial logging and industrial-style reforestation.
Early on, Forest Service ground troops wanted to turn the Biscuit into a showcase for ecological restoration. But politics intervened, and instead, the Biscuit Fire has set in motion a fierce legal, political and scientific debate about the right way to heal burned landscapes. And more is at stake here than the removal of scorched trees or the mugging of a rare ecosystem.
The Biscuit is fast becoming a test case that will determine how far the Bush administration can go in developing roadless areas and wildlife reserves nationwide. The Fiddler sale is the first to be logged in a reserve set aside as habitat for old-growth species under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. One of the next projects on the list is a 333-acre timber sale in Mike’s Gulch, a roadless area previously protected by the Clinton administration’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule. In May, President Bush released his own rule, which puts roadless areas off-limits to logging for 18 months. But the agency says the Biscuit project is exempt from the 18-month moratorium, so the Mike’s Gulch project could go ahead.
That’s just the beginning: Two-thirds of the 19,000 acres slated for logging on the Biscuit are in these late-successional reserves; 40 percent are roadless.
But as the third anniversary of the Biscuit Fire approaches, the largest national forest fire salvage project in recent history is unraveling. The Forest Service is having a hard time getting companies to bid on timber that is decaying and quickly losing its commercial value. Environmental constraints have forced the agency to scale back logging near streams and in stands that harbor the threatened spotted owl. The agency’s expectation that salvage logging would generate nearly $13 million in revenue is being revised sharply downward. Political opposition to entering the roadless areas is growing. Worst of all, in the push to get out the cut, the agency has squandered an opportunity to fully restore damaged streambanks, meadows and logging roads, and to reduce the threat of future explosive crown fires.
In the scorched forests of the Siskiyou Mountains, the Bush administration’s forest resource-extraction philosophy is getting a harsh reality check.
"If you’re going to try to get into roadless areas and not have the public be upset, one way to do that is after a big fire," says Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, who is representing environmentalists in a legal challenge of the Biscuit project. "But cutting the forest to save the forest never works."
That the Bush administration has chosen to push its logging agenda in this place, the largest chunk of wild, unroaded public land on the West Coast, seems a naked invitation to conflict.
Past attempts to develop unprotected wilderness in the Siskiyous have met with fierce opposition. In 1983, when the Forest Service tried to extend the Bald Mountain Road, dividing the Kalmiopsis Wilderness from the unprotected North Kalmiopsis roadless area, Earth First! activists blocked bulldozers with their bodies. In 1987, after the Silver Fire burned 97,000 acres of the North Kalmiopsis, environmentalists sued to stop the salvage logging; Congress finally stepped in to resolve the legal impasse by shielding the logging from lawsuits. In 1994, after President Clinton signed the notorious "salvage rider" banning appeals of salvage logging, environmentalists staged weeks-long protests over the cutting of big, live trees in the Siskiyou National Forest under the guise of promoting forest health.
Demonstrations to stop the Biscuit salvage logging have been no less passionate. During two warm, sunny weeks in March, after a federal judge lifted an injunction blocking the logging, protesters staged a series of actions on the road leading to the Fiddler sale. One man chained himself to a pipe buried in the road. A woman suspended herself from a bridge, preventing logging crews from crossing. Dozens were arrested.
At the end of March, a man protesting the logging suspended himself from a tripod in a downtown Portland intersection, blocking traffic for an hour and a half and putting the Biscuit salvage on the front page of the daily newspaper.
The Siskiyou Project, a small local conservation group, has attacked the planned salvage logging using lawsuits, maps, statistics and photographs documenting the mosaic pattern of the burn, the natural regeneration that is occurring, and the impacts of salvage logging. Federal courts will hear arguments this month on whether the Biscuit project violates environmental laws and policies protecting old-growth reserves and roadless areas. Meanwhile, environmental activists are mobilizing for a summer of attention-grabbing protests.
"We are slowing them down, making it more difficult for them, letting them know they can’t do this without people noticing," says Hazel, an activist who declines to give her last name.
The opposition includes more than just the usual cast of forest activists. Some residents of the nearby Illinois Valley have formed an alliance to preserve the tourism potential of the forest, a magnet for hikers, wildflower lovers and whitewater river enthusiasts. "Ninety percent of the visitors passing through are on their way between Crater Lake and the California redwoods," says Annette Rasch, a resident of nearby Cave Junction. "We want to get them up into the Siskiyous."
Ironically, the timber industry, which is supposed to benefit from the logging, doesn’t even want many of the dead trees. That means salvage logging will produce far less revenue to do the important work of restoration and fuel reduction — which would protect communities from future wildfires, when lightning storms inevitably ignite tinder-dry brush and young trees.
"Right now, we are in the worst possible situation," says Ross Mickey with the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. "The Forest Service has no money, we have 300,000 acres that need rehabilitation, and there’s a big risk of reburn."
This story almost had a different ending. In early 2003, as the ashes of the Biscuit Fire cooled, forest planner and fire specialist Rich Fairbanks led the Forest Service interdisciplinary team that developed a plan to address the aftermath of the fire. As part of a draft environmental impact statement, the team created a range of alternatives for using a light touch on these charred forests and staying out of old-growth reserves and roadless areas. The team focused instead on rehabilitating roads and streams, replanting scorched forests and meadows, and thinning and underburning to reduce future fire risks to populated areas.
The team’s original "preferred alternative" would have produced about 90 million board-feet of timber, most from "matrix" lands dedicated to multiple-use management, including timber harvest. (It takes about 5,000 board-feet to fill a log truck, and 10,000 board-feet to build an average-sized home.) It was a true stewardship plan that recognized the fragility of the burned landscape and the importance of the wild salmon streams that thread the Siskiyous’ V-shaped valleys. "I wanted to respect the values that were out there," says Fairbanks, a 30-year Forest Service veteran.
Fairbanks also recognized the opportunity to experiment with fire in a remote, sparsely populated forest. "This could have been a laboratory," he says, with forest thinning and prescribed burns in the "wildland-urban interface" to protect communities, and a more natural role for fire in remote roadless areas. "With a large area like this, we could have learned how a large-scale fire works without endangering local communities."
But everything changed after Douglas County to the north commissioned a study to gauge the economic windfall of high-intensity salvage logging after forest fires. Oregon State University Forestry Dean Hal Salwasser decided to use the Biscuit Fire as a test case. The Sessions report, named for John Sessions, the OSU forest engineer who authored it, suggested that with access to old-growth reserves and roadless areas, loggers could salvage up to 2.5 billion board-feet of timber from the Biscuit Fire — if federal agencies moved swiftly. Without aggressive logging, Sessions warned, the burned forests would grow back to brush and lose their commercial value for decades or centuries (HCN, 9/1/03: In fire’s aftermath, salvage logging makes a comeback).
The Sessions report perked up ears in Washington, D.C., even before its release. In late May 2003, just two months after Sessions began his work, former U.S. Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., arranged to fly him to Washington, D.C., to brief U.S. Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary David Tenny and a number of congressional staffers.
The Sessions report hit the streets on July 17, as Rich Fairbanks and his team were rushing to get the draft environmental impact statement to the printer. Within days, Scott Conroy, supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, was summoned to Washington, D.C. The Forest Service will not release records detailing whom Conroy met with there, and Conroy refuses to say. But when Conroy returned, Fairbanks recalls, his boss was singing a new tune.
"Conroy said, ‘We’ve got to get more timber.’ I told him, ‘There’s not 2 billion (board-feet) out there.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re going to act like there is.’ "
On Aug. 14, the Forest Service announced that it would delay releasing the draft environmental impact statement while planners considered the Sessions report.
Conroy denies he got pressure from higher-ups to boost the timber cut. "What drove my decision to add alternatives was the Sessions report," he says. "That made it obvious that we hadn’t considered a full range of alternatives" as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Fairbanks and his team were given six weeks to write two new alternatives for the draft environmental impact statement reflecting the Sessions report’s findings. The interdisciplinary team, which had neither time nor adequate staffing to fulfill its new marching orders, scrambled to meet its deadline. Both of the new alternatives called for logging in old-growth reserves and roadless areas, although Fairbanks says he was not allowed to complete an analysis of the ecological costs of logging in those areas.
At a meeting of the team on Sept. 30, Conroy called for a vote on the six action alternatives. Twenty-six of the 39 members present favored an alternative that salvaged just 96 million board-feet of timber, stayed out of roadless areas, and placed a high priority on watershed and wildlife habitat rehabilitation.
That wasn’t the answer Conroy was looking for. When the draft environmental impact statement finally came out, the preferred alternative called for selling 518 million board-feet of timber — more than five times what the planning team had recommended — by entering roadless areas and old-growth reserves.
It was immediately apparent that the Forest Service’s beefed-up Biscuit plan would not be popular. The draft plan drew fire from environmentalists, botanists, foresters, and scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The EPA’s Seattle office warned that the preferred alternative would have "irretrievable impacts on wilderness potential" in roadless areas. The agency raised concerns about the impact of logging on water quality and fish, and on the Port Orford cedar, a high-value conifer that is threatened by the spread of a root disease.
The Fish and Wildlife Service urged the Forest Service to stay out of inventoried roadless areas, noting that they "provide large, relatively unmanaged landscapes important to biological diversity and the longterm survival of many at-risk species."
Biologist Preston Sleeger, a regional environmental officer for the Interior Department, pointed out that threatened spotted owls, which lost more than 68,000 acres of habitat to the Biscuit Fire, had returned to several nest sites in or near burned areas by the following year and were using those areas to forage for prey.
Some of the harshest criticism came from University of Washington forest ecologist Jerry Franklin, an architect of the Northwest Forest Plan. The 1994 plan established old-growth or "late-successional" reserves across 24 million acres of public land to provide habitat for threatened salmon, spotted owls and other old-growth-dependent species (HCN, 9/27/04: Life after old growth). The plan left the reserves open to "moderate" amounts of salvage logging, but Franklin argued against it.
"General salvage of large snags and logs is absolutely antithetical to rapid recovery of late-successional forest habitats," Franklin wrote. The big snags provide shade in severely burned areas and habitat for the spotted owl’s prey, he said.
Franklin urged the agency to replant only where necessary to re-establish seed sources, and to avoid plantation-style reforestation. Instead, he said, foresters should try to mimic natural regeneration patterns. "Naturally disturbed habitat that is undergoing slow natural reforestation — without salvage or planting — is the rarest of the forest habitat conditions in the Pacific Northwest," he said.
The need to comply with owl habitat and stream protection rules and other standards forced the Forest Service to scale back its estimated timber yield to 372 million board-feet in the final Biscuit environmental impact statement. That was down about 30 percent from the draft proposal, but still almost four times what the planning team had recommended. The Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately signed off on the Biscuit plan.
The controversy continued, however. The Forest Service took the position that an old-growth forest, once burned, is no longer an old-growth forest: "We’re not in the wilderness, we’re not clear-cutting and we’re not cutting old growth," Lavagnino said.
But environmentalists responded that an old-growth forest with dead trees remains an old-growth forest. They argued that the burned landscapes were recovering on their own, and said that many of the wild areas were worthy of wilderness protection. Although the agency denied that it would allow clear-cutting, it would require loggers to leave, on average, a mere four snags per acre.
The Forest Service pointed out that the areas proposed for salvage equal just 4 percent of the nearly 500,000 acres within the Biscuit Fire’s perimeter. But Barbara Ullian of the Siskiyou Project said that statistic disguises the intensity of logging in selected areas. For example, 90 percent of the acres slated for logging are within in the watershed of the wild and scenic Illinois River.
Fairbanks, the planning team leader, was pulled off the Biscuit project as soon as the environmental impact statement was done. He retired on April 15, deeply discouraged, and firmly convinced his agency had sacrificed good land-management practices and solid science. What’s even more disturbing, he said, is that Conroy and the Bush administration appeared to be motivated not by a desire to restore the forests, or even to help local mills, but by an anti-environmental agenda.
"They don’t care about the (timber) volume," he said. "They want to get into the roadless areas. They want to poke environmentalists in the eye."
But even though the administration apparently succeeded in overruling well-meaning forest managers, its grand plan quickly began to unravel. The Forest Service has not tried to defend the salvage logging on ecological grounds. Instead, the project has always been couched in economic terms. Its goals, the agency says, are to provide an economic benefit to communities in southwest Oregon, to reduce the future risk of catastrophic wildfire, and to generate millions for restoring damaged roads and stream banks, replanting forests and meadows, and thinning and burning to create fuel breaks.
But on the economics, too, doubts surfaced from the very beginning. An economic study the Forest Service itself commissioned as part of the Biscuit plan concluded that there was no shortage of timber available to mills in southwest Oregon, most of which have retooled in the last decade to handle smaller logs. It predicted that putting 372 million board-feet of burned timber on the market would create a temporary glut, driving down prices and hurting private timberland owners.
Robert Wolf, a retired forester and former congressional staffer who lives in Maryland, has spent 60 years analyzing the costs of the Forest Service timber sale program. He predicted in November 2004 that the Biscuit salvage logging would generate no money at all — zero — for restoration of burned areas, fuels treatment or even replanting the logged units. He urged Congress to step in and pay for the necessary work.
"I pointed out to the forest supervisor that he was going to lose money, even on the original, 96 million (board-foot) proposal," said Wolf. "But the Forest Service is like a used car dealer: They lose money on every sale, but they make up for it in the volume."
Even the timber industry kept its distance from the salvage logging plans, says Ross Mickey of the American Forest Resource Council. "The Biscuit was still burning when we met with the Forest Service and told them we didn’t want any salvage, we wanted them to focus on rehabilitation," he says.
Mickey admits that’s a little disingenuous. The industry knew the Forest Service needed revenue from salvage logging to pay for reforestation. But he insists the industry’s real goal was to get every possible acre replanted. "We want a forest there," he says. "Without active tending of plantations, there isn’t going to be a forest there."
So far, the Biscuit project has created several dozen jobs for contract loggers and supplied timber to a handful of mills in southwest Oregon. Lavagnino says that many of the big trees are unexpectedly sound, possibly because the past two winters have been warmer and drier than usual.
But Dave Schott of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association says the timber is quickly losing its value. For example, he says, ponderosa pines killed by fire develop a blue stain within six to eight months that makes them unsuitable for paneling and other high-value products.
One of the largest mills in the area, the Boise Cascade mill near Medford, has no interest in bidding on any Biscuit sales because of the timber’s low value, Schott says. Another mill, in Cave Junction, will buy only large ponderosa pines.
"Frankly, 70 percent of the wood in the Biscuit has no value," he says.
Knowing these sales would bring low bids, the Forest Service adjusted its minimum bids to compensate for the high costs of logging the timber. For example, trees cut in roadless areas and old-growth reserves will have to be hauled out by helicopter, which costs $250 to $300 per 1,000 board-feet. So the Forest Service asked less than $50 per 1,000 board-feet for some sales, a rock-bottom price.
But Schott says even the low minimum bids won’t be enough to make these sales attractive. "Anything that has to be helicopter yarded won’t pencil out," he predicts.
And while Forest Service timber sale administrators are deployed to get this blackened timber out of the woods, most green tree sales have been on hold.
"Everything the Forest Service has been doing for most of the past three years has been focused on the Biscuit sale," Schott says.
Economically, it seems clear that the Biscuit Salvage is a bust. The Forest Service now concedes it won’t come close to selling the 372 million board-feet of timber it projected. Some sales have attracted no bids and have had to be withdrawn. As of mid-April, only 65 million board-feet of Biscuit timber were under contract.
The Fiddler sale was supposed to yield 14.5 million board-feet, but now that stream buffers have been marked, the volume is expected to be closer to 8 million. Multiply that reduction by all the Biscuit sales yet to be auctioned, says Lavagnino, and "probably, realistically, 100 million board-feet will come out of here."
That’s only slightly more than Rich Fairbanks’ planning team had originally proposed, in a plan that would have stayed out of roadless areas and old-growth reserves, and surely would have generated less controversy and delay.
"There’s no way we would have jumped on (as a party in a lawsuit against the Forest Service) with that original proposal," says Rick Brown, with Defenders of Wildlife. "We are not litigation-happy. We are not focused on suing the federal government." He says that while local groups might not have supported the original proposal, they would have "looked the other way" rather than fighting it.
And the original Biscuit plan would not have tied salvage logging to restoration, as the final plan does. The agency projected salvage logging would generate $13 million for restoration, but if the revenue doesn’t materialize, the healing work may never happen.
"If they get a quarter of that ($13 million), I’ll be surprised," Schott says. "We certainly will have enough to reforest the logged units," Lavagnino says. "That’s a given." But whether the agency will be able to pay for restoration remains to be seen, he says. "We figured a minimum bid would cover the cost. It’s not clear that will happen now."
Meanwhile, the costs continue to skyrocket. The agency spent $5.8 million just preparing environmental documents and doing early restoration and timber sale prep work between October 2002 and September 2004, says Forest Service spokeswoman Patty Burel. That doesn’t include the cost of other emergency rehabilitation work done while the fire was still burning and immediately afterward. It doesn’t include the cost of administering timber sales on the ground since logging began late last year. Nor does it include the cost of reforesting the 6,000 acres replanted so far, or of administering future salvage sales.
Robert Wolf thinks the final numbers will be abysmal. Based on the agency’s money-losing experiences with the 1995 salvage rider and Montana’s Bitterroot Fire Salvage project, he projects that the Forest Service will lose $1,500 on every acre of the Biscuit logged. And Wolf predicts that even the agency’s vastly scaled-back projections are overly optimistic: "They’re not likely to make 100 million (board-feet)," he says.
Politically, things don’t look much better for the administration, as pressure is building to protect the Siskiyou’s roadless areas. On April 1, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, D, asked Northwest Regional Forester Linda Goodman to delay logging in roadless areas until a lawsuit brought by environmentalists is resolved. That could come as soon as late May. To go forward before that would violate the public trust at a time when tensions already are high, the governor says.
On May 5, the Bush administration finalized its new roadless area rule. The new rule repeals the Clinton rule, which protected 58 million acres of forest, and it gives governors 18 months to petition the federal government to continue to protect their states’ roadless areas. While roadless areas nationwide will remain off-limits to logging during those 18 months, work can go ahead in roadless areas in the Biscuit project, says Forest Service spokesman Rex Holloway.
The agency has not yet said whether it plans to do so. Kulongoski immediately blasted the new rule, saying the federal government is shirking its duty to manage the national forests. He and other Western governors oppose the new process, because it will be complicated and costly, and could leave states vulnerable to lawsuits (HCN, 8/16/04: Feds pass roadless headache to states). Activists are already mounting campaigns against it. Meanwhile, in the forests scorched by the Biscuit Fire, the grand salvage-logging plans have been reduced to ashes.
"The Forest Service invited this train wreck," says Kristen Boyles, the Earthjustice attorney. "They had an original proposal that was a responsible proposal. The timber to be salvaged would have gotten out quickly. By expanding this sale, by trying to make it a poster child for the things that this administration wants to push, like logging in late-successional reserves that were supposed to provide habitat for old-growth species, they have made this a huge controversy.
"They had a chance to do the right thing, to make forestry work after a big fire, and they blew it."
Kathie Durbin writes from Portland, Oregon.
The following sidebar article accompanies this story:
Siskiyou Project www.siskiyou.org, 541-592-4459
Tom Lavagnino Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, 541-899-3840
Dave Schott Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, 541-773-5329