Almost two years after President Bush stood in the ashes of one of the largest wildfires in Oregon history, the U.S. Forest Service is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to log fire-killed trees on the burned-over land.
In documents released Tuesday, federal forest officials outlined a proposal to cut enough dead trees to fill more than 74,000 logging trucks. Much of the wood would come from road-less backcountry areas and stands of old growth.
The extent of post-fire logging has been scaled back from an earlier proposal much criticized by environmentalists. But it still calls for a timber harvest that will equal nearly a quarter of the entire national logging volume on Forest Service land last year.
The timber cutting will occur on a fraction of the 500,000 acres in southwestern Oregon that burned in the 2002 Biscuit fire, which Bush used as a backdrop to launch his campaign for logging legislation.
Flying to the blaze on Air Force One, Bush called the destruction "a crying shame" and said it was the result of poor forest management. More timber cutting was needed in the West, he said, to thin out dense growth that fuels wildfires. Congress responded by approving legislation that restricted public appeals of logging projects and made it easier for federal managers to approve timber cutting in the name of fire-hazard reduction.
But the fight over Western forest management has continued, as reflected in the controversy accompanying the Biscuit timber salvage plans.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski faulted the plan's "intrusion" into road-less areas.
"The final success of this project cannot be measured just in board feet," the governor said in a statement. "We must also balance the need for economic growth with the need to protect Oregon's natural resources -- and I believe this proposal does not go far enough to achieve that balance."
Citing the many conflicting pressures the Forest Service is under, Michael Goergen, executive vice president of the Society of American Foresters, applauded the proposal.
"Practically and realistically, this is the best decision they could make recognizing all the constraints they were under," Goergen said. "There were a variety of different constituents they have to please on all sides, and they have a variety of legal barriers."
However, Chris West of the American Forest Resources Council in Portland predicted the project would get tied up in court. "What a waste," he said. "If we don't utilize some of this wood we're going to have to cut green trees someplace."
Despite the volume of logging in the plan, most of the fire area will be left alone. "We're proposing to salvage on only 4% of the overall landscape," said Scott Conroy, supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "We're leaving 96% to recover naturally."
That failed to appease environmental groups.
"It's still one of the largest timber sales the West has ever seen in an area that deserves national park consideration. It's the wrong thing to do in a very special place," said Doug Heiken, a field representative for the Oregon National Resources Council.
In a draft released late last year, the Forest Service said it wanted to log 518 million board feet of commercial timber on the burned area. Its final environmental impact statement, released Tuesday, drops that figure to 370 million board feet.
Conroy said several factors contributed to the reduction in projected timber volume. Field checks revealed that there was more stream-side acreage that could not be logged, and also that there were more live trees than originally estimated in old growth areas.
Only dead trees without any green growth will be logged. The project, Conroy added, would provide jobs, directly and indirectly. But environmentalists say the logging will damage environmentally fragile burned areas while removing the biggest, most commercially valuable -- but least flammable -- trees.
They also complain that much of the timber cutting will occur in remote country that provides valuable habitat for wildlife dependent on old growth trees even when they are dead.
"It's not so much a question of volume as where it's coming from," said Dominick DellaSala, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Klamath-Siskiyou Regional Program in Ashland, Ore.
"They're proposing to get most of it from road-less areas and ancient forest reserves. For the Forest Service to say logging in those reserves is consistent with recovery of the [spotted] owl is scientifically false. It will do a lot more harm than good," he said.