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As Feds Trample ‘Roadlessâ€TM Areas, Activists Defend Oregon Forest

by Michelle Chen

While the White House strips away federal ecological protections, a fire-damaged forest is becoming a battleground in the struggle to protect roadless lands.

*A correction was appended to this news article after initial publication.

June 13, 2006 – Last Friday, a timber sale in the Oregon wilderness marked the Bush administration’s first trod onto more than 58 million acres of previously guarded "roadless" public lands. But as the White House mows down protections for these wild tracts, environmental groups are intent on getting in the way.

The auction offered about nine million board feet of "salvage" timber – to come from dead trees standing in a pristine yet scorched 260-acre roadless area known as Mike’s Gulch. At around $30 per thousand board feet, the sale went to Silver Creek Timber Company for a tiny fraction of the estimated market rate for comparable unburned wood, according to government data.

The sale, to be followed by a salvage auction for another roadless area called Blackberry, plays into the government’s plan to address the aftermath of the Biscuit Fire of 2002, which burned about half a million acres in and around the Rogue River-Sisikiyou National Forest. Salvage auctions have already hit thousands of acres in other parts of the forest.

But some environmentalists and scientists say the Biscuit project will ravage – not salvage – some of the most ecologically rich swaths of the United States. Conservation groups also call it an underhanded strategy to destroy environmental protections and subsidize the timber industry.

The auctions follow the White House’s recent repeal of a Clinton-era rule barring industrial activities on roadless areas. In place of the previous rule, which reserved the rugged tracts for conservation and recreation, the administration has set up a petition process through which states can propose weaker or stronger protections. As state governments approach the November deadline for petitions, the country’s roadless lands remain in limbo.

As state governments approach the November deadline for petitions, the country’s roadless lands remain in limbo.

Rolf Skar with the Siskiyou Project, a local grassroots environmental group, said that the Biscuit fire area provides a platform for the administration to sell its repeal of roadless protections as part of forest "recovery."

"It’s clear that this administration wants to roll back protections for roadless forests," Skar said, "and they think that they’ll have a stronger case with the American people if they go to an area that’s been affected by a natural disturbance like a fire."

Rich Fairbanks, a former Forest Service planner who worked on the analysis leading up to the logging plan, noted that the area’s size and ecological diversity – it harbors dozens of unique plant species, significant salmon and steelhead populations, and major timber resources – make it an alluring trophy for those seeking to peel back regulatory shields. "If they can log this big of a roadless area," he said, "I guess they can pretty much do what they want."

The US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service has advocated logging as a "recovery" measure to offset the environmental and commercial impact of the fire. The agency reported to Congress in March that the value of the timber lost in the fire topped $170 million.

Many contend that human-induced restorative measures are unnecessary, since burning and regrowth are part of a basic forest life cycle.

Regional Forest Service spokesperson Patricia Burel told The NewStandard that the current plan was not driven by a political agenda but by a rational response to disaster.

"These are fire-killed trees. They’re not green trees," she said. "So we were spending our time looking at places where you can get value out of dead trees… That’s our economic story."

But many ecologists say nature tells a different story: that dead trees are just as vital as green ones.

Studies in recent years, including research by scientists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Oregon State University, point to evidence that post-fire logging tends to impede the natural restoration process. Dead trees also serve as crucial nesting grounds and habitats for many species. And research shows that the tree debris that loggers leave scattered on the forest floor becomes fuel for future fires.

Stressing the importance of long-term forest biodiversity, Dennis Odion, a research biologist at University of California–Santa Barabara, said, "The more human intervention in the natural recovery process, the lower the biological integrity is."

One fundamental criticism of the Forest Service’s plan, which mandates both logging and extensive replanting, is that true recovery comes free of charge. Many conservationists contend that human-induced restorative measures are unnecessary, since burning and regrowth are part of a basic forest life cycle.

According to a study released in May by the Siskiyou Project, between 50 and 80 percent of surveyed roadless areas slated for logging displayed natural regrowth that met or exceeded the Forest Service’s benchmark for restoration, approximately 100 trees per acre.

If mainstream forms of public pressure fail, activists might launch more physical direct action against timber-industry stakeholders, or boycotts of paper products extracted from the area.

In purely economic terms, conservationists argue that although the Forest Service could profit marginally from the cheap salvage auctions, taxpayers will ultimately be burned by deep budget shortfalls. A study published in January by scientists with the World Wildlife Fund estimated that post-fire logging under the Biscuit plan had already led to a net loss of over $14 million, due to minimal revenues and high administrative expenses.

"They’re laying out a red carpet for these logging companies and saying, ‘How low can we make the price to make you want to come onto the public lands and log them?’" posited Ivan Maluski, conservation coordinator for the Oregon chapter of Sierra Club.

Despite such incentives, critics say the timber industry is hardly clambering for the deadwood windfall. According to a World Wildlife Fund analysis of 12 previous salvage auctions of Biscuit tracts in non-roadless areas, timber averaged about $75 per thousand board feet, with several selling at the minimum bid price.

Fairbanks, who recently retired from the Forest Service and joined the environmental group Wilderness Society as an advocate, said that when drafting the environmental-impact analysis in 2003, the agency ordered his research team to incorporate an industry-friendly analysis by Oregon State University engineering professor John Sessions. That report featured an extremely high projection for timber available in the Biscuit fire area.

Though several ecologists decried the analysis as scientifically flawed, the Forest Service seized on Sessions’ estimate of over 2 billion board feet of timber to push its roadless-area logging plan.

"It was data-free analysis," Fairbanks told TNS. "It was just nonsense."

Local conservationists say that protecting and enhancing the roadless areas as natural resources would yield greater, more sustainable economic benefits than short-term contract jobs resulting from post-fire logging operations.

Mike’s Gulch resident and local historian Greg Walter said that post-fire logging would squander an opportunity to turn the Gulch into a draw for the growing tourism and recreation sectors. "That’s really going to be the future of this economy," he said. "It’s not going to be based in the timber industry."

If the Biscuit project epitomizes the administration’s drive to trammel roadless areas, it is also galvanizing efforts to protect them through the courts and grassroots action.

Adding to legal challenges brought by environmental groups, the governments of Oregon, California, New Mexico and Washington have sued to block the repeal of roadless-area protections.

The auctioning of roadless Siskiyou territory has sparked accusations that the Forest Service is violating earlier promises to protect roadless areas while states prepare their petitions. Though the agency insists that the Biscuit project is an exception and must proceed as previously planned, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski is seeking a restraining order to halt the project.

Next door to Oregon, the Idaho Conservation League fears that the state petition process, initiated under former Governor Dirk Kempthorne before he was tapped to head the US Interior Department, is designed chiefly to weaken protections.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, a conservation associate with the League, said the process has not allowed for sufficient public input through comments and hearings, and that powerful mining and timber interests may ultimately dictate the petition.

The Oregon-based environmental group Oxygen Collective is taking a more grassroots route to defending the roadless wild. They have hit the streets with multimedia presentations to raise awareness and encourage people to bombard elected officials with phone calls opposing the Biscuit project.

The Collective stoked national concern in 2005 by blockading Biscuit logging operations at old-growth tree sites sold in earlier auctions. Organizer Tim Ream said that this year, if mainstream forms of public pressure fail, the group might launch more physical direct action against timber-industry stakeholders, or boycotts of paper products extracted from the area.

Warning that the Mike’s Gulch auction could pave the way for environmental abuses on all roadless lands, Ream said, "We have to make sure from Day One that Americans… hear that their roadless forests are being logged and… get an opportunity to have their voice effectively heard to stop it."

CORRECTION

Clarifying Note:

Due to a typographical error, in the sentence describing Idaho's petition process, the word "not" appeared as "now" immediately after publishing, but was then corrected.

 | Change Posted June 28, 2006 at 19:57 PM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Article originally appeared in the June 13, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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