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Agency fast tracks Biscuit salvage.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

Using a new power granted by the Bush administration, the U.S. Forest Service has moved toward speedy logging of burned trees from the Southwest Oregon Biscuit Fire.

Without public notice, the Forest Service has taken a first step toward declaring the huge 2002 burn an "emergency situation," the agency confirmed Thursday. The move is intended to stop environmentalists from tying up the sale in legal challenges.

The new provision allows the Forest Service to base its determination of "emergency" on the rationale that failure to act would cost the government money, said spokesperson Judy McHugh.

That's easy to apply to burns on federal forest land, she said. "The commercial value of the timber is subject to decay, so any day that you're not harvesting you're incurring the cost of decay.

Under the emergency declaration, the agency would be able to move ahead with selling the trees and allowing them to be cut even while environmentalists appealed the logging.

Election-year politics accentuate the debate, like a dusting of spring snow on a deep wood.

Environmentalists say that the new emergency powers are a politically inspired tactic to skirt the appeals process that's a last protection for sensitive lands. Their preference would be to leave the fire-killed logs in place as nurse logs for the recovering forest, and that wouldn't cost the government a dime, said Josh Laughlin of the Cascadia Wildlands Project. "We find that ironic."

But mill owners - who hope to process the Biscuit logs - say environmentalists would use the courts to stall salvage operations while the logs rot past the point of usefulness. "They know the clock is ticking. It's a tactic they use over and over again," said Paul Beck, timber manager at the Herbert Lumber Company in Riddle.

The Forest Service will soon see if a emergency determination based on economics - such as that proposed for the Biscuit - will withstand legal attack.

The Malheur National Forest was first to declare an economics-based emergency on April 7, when it finished preparations for the Flagtail salvage sale in Eastern Oregon, 25 miles southwest of John Day.

The 2002 Flagtail burned across 8,200 acres, compared with the Biscuit's 500,000 acres. But legal maneuvering over Flagtail might set the key legal precedent.

In response, four environmental groups filed suit in U.S. District court in Portland on Thursday, challenging the Flagtail emergency declaration and the sale as a whole. The groups were: The Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, the Cascadia Wildlands Project, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Logging proponents hope the declaration stands because, they say, it takes too long to salvage fire-killed trees under the existing rules.

As time goes by, dry weather spoils the wood with cracking and damp weather promotes ruinous stain and rot.

"If it gets to the point where your timber is 35 percent damaged or below-grade, you can't afford to take it out," Paul Ehinger, an industry consultant and former Lane County sawmill operator.

Beck, at the Riddle mill, said his firm is currently milling Biscuit logs that were taken out early because they were in danger of falling on a road.

"It's a nice log; it's in good shape," he said. "But given one more year, I don't think it will last. We need to do something this year. It's getting to that point."

At Starfire Lumber Co. in Cottage Grove, Robbie Robinson is ready to rev up the the saws. "The sooner the harvesting is done in that area the better - from the standpoint of the American taxpayer as well as everybody else," Robinson said.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, challenge the basis for the emergency declaration and whether massive logging on the Biscuit burn will benefit anybody - or the forest creatures that live there.

A report by Eugene-based consultant ECONorthwest conducted over the past year - and commissioned by the conservation group Siskiyou Education Project - found the government is likely to lose money by selling the Biscuit salvage timber.

Economist Ernie Niemi said the government based its analysis on excessively rosy assumptions, such as that the burned logs were worth the same as green logs, that placing a large number on the market all at once would not depress prices and that the government would take in enough to recoup the cost of preparing the sales and cleaning up afterward.

"On balance, it will be highly likely that trying to log 500 million board feet will result in costs that are greater than the value of the logs themselves - perhaps by as much as $100 million," he said. "There will be a significant impact on taxpayers to pick up the difference."

Further, says Don Smith of the Siskiyou Education Project, the Forest Service can't be sure it will find buyers for all the sales it prepares.

The Anderson West timber sale on nearby Bureau of Land Management land hasn't found a buyer in five months, despite two tries, Smith said.

"The second time, the price was lowered and still no buyer," he said. "The argument that there just isn't access to enough federal timber doesn't seem to hold water. When the market is flooded, they don't need it and they're not buying it."

If Siskiyou National Forest gets its requested emergency declaration for the Biscuit, employees will be ready to move, McHugh said.

For two years, salvage has been the forest's top priority, she said. Sixty employees worked on the environmental impact statement and 120 are out preparing the land.

They've marked sale boundaries with blue and yellow tags, and will be ready to lay out the units when the OK comes.
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Title Annotation:Government; The Forest Service uses new emergency powers to speed logging of the burned area
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 9, 2004
Words:940
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