While the ashes of this summer's Western forest fires still smolder, pressure to salvage vast tracts of fire-blackened timber already has kindled a new political firestorm in the Intermountain West.
The post-fire controversy
pits timber companies eager to log against environmentalists who
warn that hasty salvage operations could further damage soils and
streams and limit future management options in the fragile forests
east of the Cascade Mountains.
The U.S. Forest
Service comes down somewhere in the middle, though Chief Jack Ward
Thomas told a congressional subcommittee in Boise Aug. 29 that the
agency "cannot, in my opinion, simply step back and wait for
"nature" to take its course."
about 1.5 million acres in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington,
Idaho, Montana and portions of Utah and Nevada this summer. All but
200,000 acres was federally managed land.
said he knew some critics would question any aftermath that
includes cutting trees. But he made it clear that the Forest
Service won't delay efforts to restore burned forests to some
semblance of their historic condition through salvage logging,
prescribed fire, mechanical removal of dead wood and thinning of
densely stocked stands.
In late August, timber
corporations took the offensive, buying ads in 12 daily newspapers
and spots on more than 30 radio stations in Washington, Idaho and
Montana. The ads blamed conservationists in part for this summer's
"Sadly, this year's
tragic losses may be but a preview unless public-land managers are
immediately allowed to harvest dead and dying timber on our
national forests," warned one ad, billed as "a message from the
Forest Workers of the Intermountain West."
"The irresponsible actions of
a few radicals have blocked even the most modest efforts to return
to safe and healthy condition through thinning and selective
logging," the ad accused.
The timber industry
also is pushing the government to authorize intensive thinning
operations aimed at averting future fires in thick stands weakened
by drought, fire suppression and insects.
Bader, executive director of the Missoula-based Alliance for the
Wild Rockies, says the timber industry and its allies in Congress
are preying on people's fear of devastating wildfires to stack the
decks in favor of massive salvage logging and "forest health"
not as bad as the timber beasts say," responds an ad prepared by
the alliance. "Where there's smoke there's liars."
"Are we saving the forests?
Or are we saving the trees for the timber industry?" Bader asked at
an Aug. 29 news conference in Boise. He said his group probably
would challenge salvage sales through the Forest Service appeals
"The timber industry
is taking advantage of a void in public understanding," said Lisa
Lombardi, a wildlife biologist in Moscow, Idaho. "Fires are not
like logging. Many species depend on snags and downed logs. Those
snags left on the land are the only remaining biomass' after fire
sweeps through, she said.
But the rush to
salvage is on. Sam Gehr, supervisor of the Okanogan National
Forest, predicted in August, while fires still raged in eastern
Washington, that 30 million board-feet of timber could be salvaged
from his forest.
That provoked a letter of
protest from 14 conservation groups to Jeff Blackwood, director of
the federal Eastside Ecosystem Management Project, which is
preparing a scientific study of all federal lands in the Interior
Columbia Basin and a comprehensive management plan (see
caution you not to put the Forest Service in the position of
defending how your management is going to restore acres or limit
future fires at this time," the conservationists wrote. "The
(Project) is attempting to deal with these complex issues, and
promotion of aggressive salvage or thinning, especially lacking a
landscape perspective, is highly premature."
Instead, the conservationists suggested that the Forest Service use
the 1994 fires to educate the public about the role of fire in
Eastside forests. "When hot, dry conditions occur, Eastside forests
burn. These fires are a normal ecological event, if viewed from a
Blackwood said at a
mid-August meeting of the Eastside Ecosystem team that he "has no
authority or expectation to jump into the middle of decisions on
urge a go-slow approach say that promises of high-volume salvage
sales, like Gehr's, put them on the defensive. "This kind of story
is putting great pressure on environmentalists," said Jere Payton
of Oroville, Wash. "We can't even respond because then we will be
blamed if the 30 million board-feet doesn't materialize."
Conservationists are trying to counter the
timber industry's ad campaign with their own logic. For instance,
they say that much of the Tyee Creek fire, which scorched 135,000
acres in eastern Washington, burned mainly in previously logged
stands, not pristine wilderness - stands where past management
practices and eight years of drought had left insect-damaged trees
Tom Graham, who is overseeing
short-term rehabilitation of the 135,000-acre Tyee Creek fire on
the Wenatchee National Forest, says critics are right, to a
"It's way more
complicated than either of those generalizations," Graham said. "If
you look at gross area burned, I'm guessing that easily more than
50 percent was in areas where we've been allowed to manage." But
within those areas, some untouched watersheds also burned, Graham
said. "The fire was influenced in some cases by past management
activities, in other cases not at all."
Environmental lobbyists worry that Northwest lawmakers will attach
a surprise rider to the 1995 Forest Service appropriations bill
seeking to capitalize on this summer's fires. Among the
possibilities, says Jim Owens of the Western Ancient Forest
Campaign, are "a salvage bill disguised as a forest health bill or
a fuels-management amendment that is really a
At an Aug. 29
field hearing in Boise, Forest Service Chief Thomas stressed that
the forest health problems plaguing the Intermountain West had
their beginnings more than a century ago. He said the forests have
suffered further from drought, exclusion of fire and removal of the
healthiest, most fire-resistant trees from the
"The forest health
problems and associated high intensity wildfires are indicators of
an ecosystem that is not in balance, and the concerns will not go
away when cooler and wetter fall weather arrives," the chief said.
In the long run, he said, a comprehensive strategy must await the
completion of the scientific study that is part of the Eastside
Ecosystem Management Project under way in Walla Walla.