Once burned, twice shy

  The more I learn about the Forest Service's approach to the aftermath of the Biscuit fire in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, the greater my sense that history is about to repeat itself.

Some people might wonder why a 55-year-old man living in a cabin surrounded by Montana's Bitterroot National Forest would have such a keen interest in a massive logging plan on another state’s national forest.

The answer: I lived through the Bitterroot fires of 2000, when lightning and human-caused fires burned over 300,000 acres, including much of the land surrounding my home.

Even before the flames were out, and before many people, including myself, could return home, the Forest Service and the logging industry were fanning the public's newly learned fear of fire.

Using buzzwords such as "restoration" and "fuel reduction," they led the public to believe that the best thing for the Bitterroot following the big fire was an equally big salvage logging operation.

When the Forest Service released its final Bitterroot "Recovery Plan," it called for logging 181 million board-feet of trees on 46,239 acres, with over half the logging in unroaded wildlands or core habitat for threatened bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. At the time, this was one of the biggest Forest Service logging proposals in modern history.

Now, the Forest Service has outdone itself with its so-called Biscuit Post-Fire Recovery Project. This logging plan in southern Oregon would cut down enough trees from the Siskiyou National Forest to fill 76,000 log trucks lined up for over 650 miles. It would also log 8,173 acres of inventoried roadless wildlands and 6,756 acres of ancient forest reserves.

While the places have changed, much of the rhetoric about restoration, community protection and future fire hazard remains the same on the Biscuit project as it was in the Bitterroot. I guess the Forest Service figures that if it can fool the public once, it can fool us again.

What can't be dismissed here on the Bitterroot is how the Forest Service's rhetoric and promises have failed to match up with reality on the ground. Unlike the proposed project on the Siskiyou, we've been seeing the results of our "recovery" plan for two years.

A month before the project started, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth defended his Bitterroot plan by stating, "The most important thing to me is getting on with the restoration work. There's lots of other work we wanted to do — roads we wanted to obliterate, watershed work, reforestation. The idea of the whole project was fire restoration."

Yet, two years into this "recovery" plan, only 17 percent of the total required road and watershed restoration work has been completed, and $16 million in restoration funds are gone, meaning the restoration work may never get done.

While the critical restoration work waits, the vast majority of the logging has occurred far from the nearest community. Meanwhile, logging companies have systematically cut down the largest, most fire-resistant trees while leaving the less valuable, smaller trees. Now, only the small, fire-prone trees are left standing amidst the piles of logging slash tinder.

Instead of reducing fire risk on the Bitterroot, the Forest Service is using taxpayer dollars to increase the fire hazard. And the agency knows this. Obscured within volumes of project analysis is an admission that slash from logging will "increase (the) fire hazard for up to eight years. Under good burning conditions, fires burning in these slash fuel types have the potential to spread rapidly and extensively." This conclusion was never mentioned at the numerous public meetings leading up to the timber sale.

Meanwhile, the unscientific specter of a possible future "catastrophic reburn" was highlighted repeatedly, just as it is now in the Siskiyous of Oregon. If the specter of a destructive "reburn" really lives in these mountains, I wonder why Lewis and Clark found magnificently healthy forests? These Bitterroot forests — just like those in the Siskiyous — had burned many times and never been salvage logged.

What we locals see here on the Bitterroot is the Forest Service's failure to deliver on legitimate restoration, the fire hazard increased by logging and real-world evidence that the specter of 'reburn' is nothing but a scary fiction.

Real recovery, as well as public trust, got burned on the Bitterroot by Forest Service rhetoric. I only hope the Biscuit "recovery" isn't a rhetorical reburn as well.

Larry Campbell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a former miner and logger who now works for several nonprofit conservation groups in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.