Burning down the woods

  • Firefighters, Horseshoe fire near Flagstaff last May

    Sean Openshaw/Ariz. Daily
  An Arizona timber company that accidentally burned 8,000 acres on the Coconino National Forest last year will be allowed to bid on a salvage timber sale in the burned area.

The fire began in May 1996, in a smoldering slash pile left by Stone Forest Industries. The fire burned 8,000 acres north of Flagstaff and cost taxpayers more than $2 million to put out. Although Stone Forest Industries has admitted it was responsible, it didn't pay a dime; its contract with the Forest Service absolved the company of responsibility.

But allowing the company to bid on a 4 million board-foot salvage timber sale in the burned area burns Kieran Suckling, a staffer with the nonprofit Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. He compared the salvage sale to "mugging a burn victim. It's a terrible, terrible precedent to allow multinational timber corporations to set timber schedules through their own negligence," he said.

According to Allen Funkhouser, a Forest Service official who led a team investigating the fire, Stone Forest was innocent of negligence and arson. "In this case they followed all the procedures," Funkhouser said.

No one intentionally allowed the fire to spread, agreed Steve Bennett, Stone Forest Industries regional manager. Bennett said he called in a second investigating team from the company's headquarters in Columbia, S.C., which also found no evidence of arson.

That doesn't soothe Suckling. "I don't care if they went in with helicopters and X-rayed it," he said. "The bottom line is these guys burned down the forest."

The Southwest Center has temporarily stopped the sale with an appeal to the agency's regional office, arguing that allowing logging violates a newly amended forest plan. The plan requires salvage sales to leave 5 to 7 trees per acre for goshawks and endangered spotted owls, the Southwest Center says, and the Forest Service was planning to leave none.

Scott Ewers, a timber specialist for the agency, said the new plan doesn't apply to the salvage sale because the burned area is "a biological desert" and not goshawk or spotted owl habitat. Even if it were suitable habitat, Ewers said, the sale is exempt from the amended rules because the fire occurred before the new rules were in place.

Suckling said he expects he'll have to sue to stop the sale.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service doesn't want salvageable lumber to rot. "If we don't cut them in the next year, the product value goes to waste," Ewers said. "And the American public demands wood products for their homes and other uses."

*Jason Lenderman

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