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Biscuit Fire: Log it or leave it?

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

Familiar foes are racing toward a new showdown in Southern Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains over what would be one of the largest post-fire logging operations of modern times.

That environmental groups and the timber industry are at odds over the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire recovery surprises no one.

What makes this battle one to watch is that the outcome could control how the nation handles salvage and recovery from large forest fires for years to come.

Among the most pressing issues in the fight is a push by conservationists to preserve roadless areas.

On the other end of the debate, mill owners and local officials speak of the urgency to cut the timber before it rots and use the wood to jolt the sagging economy.

The Bush administration, determined to avoid legal challenges that tie up logging proposals for years, is keeping a close eye on how the dispute plays out. The plan is on a fast track: The public comment period ends Jan. 5, and a decision is expected soon after that. Scott Conroy, supervisor of the Siskiyou and Rogue River National Forest, will pick one of seven salvage logging and forest restoration options outlined in a thick environmental analysis released this month.

Conroy's preliminary choice calls for logging 518 million board feet in areas that total about 30,000 acres. That's enough wood to keep mills from Roseburg to Medford to the coast busy for a year or more.

It's also five times the amount that Forest Service officials proposed last spring at the start of the analysis. Interest groups and the public weighed in with suggestions that ranged from even greater logging to letting nature reclaim the charred landscape without human intervention. The agency responded with an array of options, from the obligatory "no action" to one that would allow the logging of more than 1 billion board feet of timber.

Conroy said the proposal he favors would best meet the agency's main goals: to remove dead and dying trees that could fuel future fires and endanger firefighters and nearby communities; to replant trees and help restore fish and wildlife habitat; and to recover economic value from fire-killed trees, in turn subsidizing some forest restoration work and helping local economies.

The outcome could mean a wave of logs and new jobs for a region still reeling from the slide in wood products manufacturing that began in the late 1980s. Half a billion board feet of lumber would build about 31,000 homes measuring 2,000 square feet each.

But the clock is ticking. If loggers can't get to the timber within the next year, much of the commercial value of the wood will be lost to the effects of water, heat, insects and worms, all of which are breaking down trees killed as a result of the 120-day blaze.

The basic arguments

David Hill, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, supports the urgency to cut and remove damaged trees before they're worthless - a tight window that could close within a year. But the Forest Service project shouldn't be misconstrued as simply a logging proposal to benefit his industry, Hill said.

"We want to see the forest recovery process begin as quickly as possible and be successful," he said. "We don't want to look at the Biscuit Fire 10 years from now and see a brush field that will be extremely difficult to get back into productive conifer forests, and fisheries and wildlife habitat in worse condition than it is today."

Environmentalists see the prospect of large-scale salvage logging as a setback to their decades-old campaign to win greater protection for what they say is one of the most ecologically distinct forests in the West.

"One of the very exceptional things about the area through which the Biscuit Fire burned is its wild state," said Romain Cooper, conservation coordinator of the Siskiyou Project, an environmental group based in Cave Junction.

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness, much of which burned in the center of the massive fire, contains 179,000 acres of the Siskiyous.

But conservation groups have sought to protect an even larger area that they call Siskiyou Wild Rivers. It includes parts of the Rogue and Illinois rivers, both listed as federal wild and scenic rivers, as well as botanical wonders that have evolved in a landscape shielded from glaciation for possibly 50 million years.

Roadless areas in eye of storm

Tens of thousands of acres within the Biscuit Fire's boundary have never been logged, so no roads exist in those areas. They're part of a national inventory of roadless lands placed off limits to logging in early 2001, at the end of the Clinton presidency.

But now the roadless conservation rule could vanish, in large part because the Bush administration has refused to defend it against legal challenges. A federal court in Wyoming ruled against the roadless rule in July, and if that decision survives on appeal, logging would be legal in roadless areas within the Biscuit burn.

Assuming that will be the case, the Forest Service's preferred plan would permit logging in 12,180 acres of roadless forest.

But the logging would influence a larger area and would force the Forest Service to disqualify a total of 57,000 acres from the roadless designation, the agency says.

Two large roadless areas north and south of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness would shrink, and two smaller roadless areas would lose their roadless distinction altogether. That alarms environmental groups as much as the potential impact of the entire salvage logging proposal. If roads go in those areas, they no longer can be considered for expansion of the forest's wilderness.

Cooper said he's not opposed to some level of salvage logging in parts of the national forest where timber sales normally would be permitted.

But he believes that fire is an integral part of the celebrated biological diversity of the Siskiyous and that natural regeneration of burned roadless areas is the best remedy.

"The Kalmiopsis has the largest mass of roadless areas along the Pacific Ocean, from the Olympics down to Baja," Cooper said. "If we, on the pretense of salvage logging for short-term economic gain, convert much of that natural landscape to tree farms, we will lose in the long run."

Other issues in play

Logging could spoil the recreation appeal in many parts of the forest, which would further damage the local economy, Cooper said.

"This is really going to compromise our ability to enjoy the national forests, to hunt and fish and also promote the area as an eco-tourism destination," Cooper said. "A lot of people visit here to enjoy the natural values. We're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg if this project goes through."

Conroy, who headed the national team that crafted the roadless area conservation rule now under fire, said the Biscuit salvage proposal he prefers steers clear of the most intact and highest-quality roadless areas, including those popular for backcountry recreation.

Instead, logging would occur in smaller, more isolated roadless areas on the forest's fringe.

"We know how important it is to have landscapes that are contiguous and not broken up, and are managed for those roadless values," he said.

But for other roadless areas caught in the fire's path, it may be better to try to accelerate the return of old growth forests, Conroy said.

"Some of the areas of the fire burned very hot and of large enough acreage that it will be decades if not hundreds of years before they reforest naturally," he said. "Where it makes sense, where there's reasonable accessibility and where the soils are of reasonable productivity, we can begin that restoration process."

The Forest Service also proposes using the lighter touch of helicopters to remove 65 percent of the timber volume from the salvage sale, even though helicopter logging is much more expensive than conventional methods.

Hill, with the timber industries group, thinks it's critical to give the forest a head start to recovery.

"About 25 percent of the spotted owl nesting sites within the Biscuit Fire area were lost," he said. "Just from environmental and endangered species concerns, you want to get that new forest growing as soon as possible."

Letting nature do it alone would delay the process by 50 to 100 years, Hill said, citing a controversial report by Oregon State University's College of Forestry.

"It's still going to come back if you let nature take its course, but it will be much slower," he said.

The OSU report, which critics believe heavily influenced the higher harvest volume in the Biscuit recovery analysis, contained one essential message, said its author, Professor John Sessions.

"If you decide to embark on forest restoration, the costs become larger the longer you wait," Sessions said.

The Forest Service certainly has an interest in helping mature conifer forests return to the landscape as quickly as possible, he said.

The fire consumed an estimated 95,500 acres of spotted owl nesting habitat, and the forest will need at least 160 years to return to its pre-fire condition and again support owls and related old growth species, he said.

What's next

Nevertheless, environmentalists say they're poised to draw any weapon from their arsenal to stop salvage logging on the order of the Forest Service's preferred plan.

"We will use any administrative and legal options that are open to us," Cooper said. "There's no secret about that."

Their success will depend on how far the government will go to block such opposition.

The Forest Service can seek an emergency exemption from appeals of the project, although Conroy said it's too early to say if the agency would do that.

But he does know this: There's no way to please everyone.

"There's never any one right answer," he said. "It's a choice of public values that needs to be made. ... My job is to carry out our mission based on the purpose and need of the project, and not to only carry out those portions of the mission that particular interest groups agree with."

PUBLIC COMMENTS

The U.S. Forest Service is taking comments on its draft environmental impact statement for the Biscuit Fire recovery.

Due date: Jan. 5, 2004

E-mail comments: r6_biscuit@fs.fed.us

Fax comments: (530) 493-1775 or (530) 493-1776

Mail comments: Scott Conroy, Forest Supervisor, c/o ACT2, P.O. Box 377, Happy Camp, CA 96039

Oral testimony: Dec. 17, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., fairgrounds pavilion, Grants Pass

PUBLIC FORUM

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore, will host a forum this week on the fire recovery plan.

When: 1 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Jacoby Auditorium, Umpqua Community College, Roseburg

Who: Smith will be joined by Mark Rey, agriculture undersecretary in charge of the U.S. Forest Service, and Hal Salwasser, dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry

CAPTION(S):

Romain Cooper, a Southern Oregon environmentalist, walks through a grove of charred pine trees near Cave Junction. Cooper objects to the scale of salvage logging favored by U.S. Forest Service officials for the Biscuit Fire area. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard Southern Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains, the site of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, were hit hard by the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire last year.
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Title Annotation:Environment; Decisions over how much and where to cut are carefully watched
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 30, 2003
Words:1876
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