BOISE NATIONAL FOREST, Idaho - Two years after an award-winning salvage harvest of burned timber, a half-dozen former log-storage areas along Little Rattlesnake Creek look like open wounds.
Only a few wisps of grass cling to acres
of disturbed ground littered with broken branches, ashes and partly
burned wood. Gritty soils bleed directly into the creek. A few
lines of straw bales stanch the loss.
"Do I feel
good about this? No," says U.S. Forest Service Ranger Larry Tripp.
"When you have little screwups like this, they can easily become
the focus of people's assessment of how you did."
They already have. Critics have uncovered damage
and illegalities in the Foothills Wildfire Recovery Project here,
which has been touted as a model for future
As Congress presses for salvage sales
exempt from environmental laws, disclosures about this huge salvage
effort are raising questions about both the model and the
"If they do this much damage when
they face the threat of the law, what will they do when they are
immune from challenge?" asks Steve Davis, a biologist with the
Idaho Sporting Congress, a group of hunters, hikers and
In fact, a review of the Foothills
salvage project suggests that it is neither the disaster nor the
therapeutic balm that the two sides of the timber debate are
calling it. Though hailed as a careful operation, it shows that
salvage needs tight oversight.
sales harvest dead or damaged trees in the wake of a wildfire or
other blight. They have become the main bone of contention for a
wood-starved timber industry in the wake of declining live-tree
sales and 1994 wildfires that burned 3 million acres in the United
The size and prominence of the Foothills
operation ensured that it would be a high-profile project. Cutting
110 million board-feet of timber from a 100,000-acre landscape, it
dwarfed previous salvaging in the northern Rocky
The industry contends the federal
government should do a lot more salvage logging to avoid the waste
of billions of board-feet of valuable wood. Moreover, it claims
salvage logging is needed therapy for sick
Environmental groups, on the other hand,
warn that a rush to salvage is likely to impede natural
Today, both sides point to the
Foothills project as evidence of what is good, or bad, about
Several elements of these sales
appear to undermine the arguments of salvage
First, these post-fire salvage sales
were designed to recover timber value. They were not intended to
foster environmental recovery as congressional advocates suggest,
says Larry Tripp, the ranger who directed them. While some salvage
sales may improve forest conditions - in diseased timber, for
instance - evidence for that in burned areas is tenuous, experts
Second, punching road systems into large
roadless areas here was judged too expensive and environmentally
harmful, Tripp says. Yet language approved by the House of
Representatives pushed sales toward roadless areas by ordering a
doubling of salvage harvests regardless of
Third, the agency's timber sale managers
showed a bias toward cutting more than was planned. They made a
series of concessions to loggers that boosted cutting and reduced
environmental protection compared with their original plan.
Although the managers allowed changes to increase logging, they
sought few changes to restrict logging.
officials here proved that environmental reviews need not bog down
salvage sales. The timber sales were pushed through with remarkable
speed by Steven Mealey, then supervisor of the Boise National
Forest. Using a loophole, Mealey exempted the project from appeals
and cut a deal with several environmental groups: He would spare
two large roadless areas if they wouldn't oppose the sales. Cutting
began only three months after snow had snuffed the last embers of
To speed the vast project, foresters
decided they wouldn't even try to flag sale boundaries and mark
trees to be cut, which could have taken more than a year. Instead,
Mealey's office drew up maps and general guidelines for cutting,
handed them to the companies that bought the timber, and supervised
Did it work? That depends on whom you talk
The Idaho Sporting Congress charges that the
Forest Service repeatedly ignored its environmental analysis, broke
state and federal laws, and failed to levy more than one token fine
against loggers who exceeded harvest
The sportsmen's group found that
project managers more than doubled the planned log-storage and
helicopter landing pads, sited a half-dozen of them next to streams
in violation of a state rule, allowed hundreds of trees to be cut
near streams where the plan banned harvest, and failed to restore
the bald, erosion-prone landings.
expanded the places where ground-disturbing tractors were used to
drag logs. When loggers cut outside a fairly clear salvage sale
boundary, managers moved the boundary. And inspectors reported
dozens of cases where loggers cut too many
"The Forest Service turned a beneficial
wildfire into an industrial disaster," charges Idaho Sporting
Congress director Ron Mitchell.
Service concedes most of the factual criticisms, which come from
its inspection reports. Tripp, the ranger in charge, regrets
"screwups' in the project and admits reluctance to cite loggers
when they cut the wrong unmarked trees or crossed unmarked
boundaries. Proving willful violations could be hard, he
But Tripp notes that this land is scheduled
for occasional logging, not for wilderness. So he figures some
disturbance is acceptable. "The problems are pretty minuscule in my
mind relative to the scale" of the salvage sales, he says. "We
basically got what we wanted out on the ground."
He isn't alone. The Forest Service gave two
awards to the project, and Idaho's Department of Fish and Game
imitated it on some land it owns.
executive vice president of American Forests, a conservation group
that supports some salvage logging, says the Foothills project
"looked like a pretty good job."
Today, most of
the logged area shows few of the scars from ground-based yarding
that are common in the Northwest's coastal forests. And with some
trees left standing, only scattered low stumps disclose that a
slope was logged; from a distance it is often hard to
Salvage critics also gloss over the payoff.
The Foothills sales garnered $34 million for federal and county
treasuries, and provided hundreds of jobs for a
Despite the flak he has taken, the Forest
Service's Tripp recoils at the idea of forbidding environmental
challenges, as the pending legislation
"The thought of an appeal or court case
is something that makes people do a very professional job and think
about what they're doing," he says.
administration agrees. It proposes to speed salvage sales and
appeals, but opposes the move to bar environmental
While the administration says salvage
logging should be only one part of a broad forest-health
improvement drive, congressional proponents call it the key to
restoring damaged forests. Unless salvage is carried out soon,
Washington Sen. Slade Gorton said in a news release, "the dead and
dying timber will serve as fuel for another round of devastating
fires in 1995."
Some experts deride such talk.
Calling salvage of burned timber a forest health effort "is like
calling a coroner's work health care," says American Forests'
He calls for thinning dense ponderosa
pine forests that have become vulnerable to stand-destroying bug
attacks and fires. He supports some salvage logging, but wants its
profits plowed back into thinning and prescribed burns. Neither
pending salvage measure would do that.
shares Sampson's frustration. He agrees that salvage logging alone
does little or nothing for forest health. "This is timber recovery
activity. I don't think this is a forest health activity," Tripp
"We've spent the last five years doing
salvage operations and little else. We're reacting to the symptoms
of the problem: we're not dealing with the problem yet."
Rob Taylor is a
reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where this story first