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Did the Forest Service burn New Mexico enviros?

  Did the Forest Service burn

New Mexico enviros?

On the day President Clinton signed what's become known as the "logging without laws' rider last July, a nearly 10,000 foot-high peak in southwest New Mexico burst into flames. Now federal plans for salvage logging of this area - Eagle Peak near Reserve, N.M. - have led environmentalists to charge that the fire was no accident.

The Southwest Center for Biological Diversity believes Forest Service officials, at the very least, allowed the fire to burn to justify salvage logging in the roadless area. The Center's Kieran Suckling cites internal memos in which members of the fire-fighting team complained that Forest Service officials held them back during the fire. Team member Jim Sullivan wrote that he "felt Forest was trying to dictate tactics. Wanted to get more aggressive with fire, but felt they couldn't - Forest interfering." Another team member, Steve Blest, said a forest official was "interfering with an air attack."

Gila National Forest officials make no bones about their interest in logging Eagle Peak. The sale of the fire-scorched timber "is critical in establishing what the region will be able to do regarding salvage," wrote deputy supervisor Carl Pence last October. But the agency maintains it fought the fire cautiously for safety reasons and that if it had been able to log the area, the fire would not have been so intense. The fire burned 20,000 acres, including several core habitat areas for the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

In January, environmentalists grew angry again when they learned that federal officials pulled a provision in a recovery plan for the owl that would have effectively killed the Eagle Peak Sale. The provision would have banned salvage logging in steep-sloped and roadless areas.

Nancy Kaufman, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledges that the owl recovery team changed the provision Oct. 17, one day after she approved it, but says "the decision had nothing to do with the salvage sale." The plan was revised, she says, to provide more management flexibility.

*Tony Davis