Salvage logging yields logs and controversy


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 salvaging.

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 legislation.

"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 recreationists.

Taking a closer look

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.

Salvage timber 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 States.

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 Mountains.

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 forests.

Environmental groups, on the other hand, warn that a rush to salvage is likely to impede natural recovery.

Today, both sides point to the Foothills project as evidence of what is good, or bad, about salvage logging.

Several elements of these sales appear to undermine the arguments of salvage proponents.

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 say.

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 cost.

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.

Fourth, 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 the fire.

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 them.

Did it work? That depends on whom you talk to.

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 prescriptions.

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.

They also 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 trees.

"The Forest Service turned a beneficial wildfire into an industrial disaster," charges Idaho Sporting Congress director Ron Mitchell.

The Forest 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 says.

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.

Neil Sampson, 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 tell.

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 year.

Despite the flak he has taken, the Forest Service's Tripp recoils at the idea of forbidding environmental challenges, as the pending legislation proposes.

"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.

The Clinton administration agrees. It proposes to speed salvage sales and appeals, but opposes the move to bar environmental challenges.

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' Sampson.

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.

Tripp 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 said.

"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 appeared.

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