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Deciphering Bitterroot. (News from the World of Trees).

Recent controversy over a Burned Area Recovery Plan for the Bitterroot National Forest illustrates some of the difficulties facing natural resource managers and policymakers in today's forest policy environment. Those difficulties arise from value conflicts, adversarial approaches to decisions, procedural knots, and a traditional scientific management mindset.

The Bitterroot fires of 2000 burned 350,000 acres, some of it intensely. The U.S. Forest Service began to formulate a recovery plan with guidance from the new National Fire Plan and with a great public focus on wildfire issues.

The agency worked through the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). (It held public meetings and did public surveys to obtain diverse local perspectives, developed and assessed a set of alternative actions, obtained further public response to these alternatives, and after 16 months, came out with its preferred alternative.)

The alternative mixed watershed protection, forest regeneration, and fuel-reduction activities, consistent with the goals and strategies of the National Fire Plan.

Some of the proposed activities met with broad public approval--activities such as watershed protection and forest regeneration, much of it tree planting. (AMERICAN FORESTS is partnering with the agency and other private organizations to support and leverage tree-planting activities focused on ecosystem restoration.).

"Fuel reduction" activities, however, met with strong opposition and threats of appeal and litigation from a number of environmental groups.

The fuel reduction activities the agency proposed involved salvage logging in burned areas to reduce the threat of intense "reburns." The differences in perspective on these activities are difficult to unravel. The agency presented those activities as salvaging dead and dying trees and cutting small-diameter trees that stood below the canopy in order to reduce the risk of destructive wildfires that might threaten communities and important ecological values.

Opposing environmental groups, however, called it salvage logging that was driven by economic concerns, would have adverse environmental impacts, and had not been scientifically proven to reduce wildfire risk.

What the agency presented as an effort to reduce wildfire threats on 44,000 acres--about 15 percent of the burned area--and to provide some local economic opportunities through jobs in the forest and use of the removed materials, environmental groups presented as an expansive salvage logging operation to help keep alive an ailing timber industry. Environmental groups said this would be the largest salvage sale in the history of the Forest Service, amounting to 178 million board-feet over a three year period.

Much of the controversy is over process. The Forest Service, backed by the Bush administration, attempted to shorten the decisionmaking process by going straight to court rather than dealing first with administrative appeals. The rationale was to reduce the amount of time between planning and implementation.

But the tactic seemed to backfire, leading to an additional round of litigation over the elimination of the appeals process, which environmental groups won. The court ruled the two sides must negotiate a settlement.. That settlement reduced the area in which "fuel reduction," or salvage logging, would be done by 15,000 acres.

This discussion points out the difficulty of reaching resource management decisions and allowing action steps to be taken. The processes through which the Forest Service engages diverse interests and communities seems to lead, inexorably, toward conflict. The agency generates huge amounts of analysis and scientific information but, ultimately, that information provides little help in reducing conflicts and reaching good practical decisions that communities can broadly accept.

We and many community groups believe it's time to take a closer look at the processes through which the Forest Service and other federal agencies engage and collaborate with communities in their decisionmaking processes. We think a hard look, and some experimentation, with the administrative and regulatory processes--not the overarching authorizing laws--is warranted and timely.
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Author:Gray, Gerry
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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