The Post-Burning Question: Log It or Leave It?
Three government SUVs guarded a road to nowhere.
Nearby, a middle-age couple camping out in a trailer manned a round-the-clock checkpoint next to a locked gate, on the watch for environmental protesters.
A few miles beyond, the drone of chain saws rose from a deep ravine while a hovering helicopter plucked blackened logs from the floor of the burned forest and carried them to the nearest road.
Begun in August, the logging is the first in the country on nearly 60 million acres of remote national forest protected by a Clinton administration decree that was set aside last year by the Bush administration. The operation was too far along to be stopped by a Sept. 19 federal court order reinstating the Clinton edict.
Ever since a huge 2002 fire called Biscuit swept across the outback of southwest Oregon, burning a swath of forest the size of Orange County, this prized landscape has been at the forefront of conflict over Bush administration forest policies dealing with roadless backcountry and wildfire.
One of the most contentious issues is whether government should leave a forest alone after it has burned, letting the trees decay to nurture a gradual rebirth, as conservationists advocate; or log the commercially valuable dead timber and replant, as the Bush administration desires.
It is a debate likely to intensify across the West as millions of acres of forest burn every year, the conditions worsened by drought and global warming. Already, a third of the timber harvested in U.S. national forests consists of salvage -- trees killed or damaged in wildfires, insect outbreaks or other natural disasters.
To environmentalists, the Biscuit fire became an excuse for the U.S. Forest Service to pursue logging on thousands of acres of untrammeled wild lands studded with virgin, old-growth timber killed by the flames.
“Biscuit is a battering ram going through the last best places, some of the most important ecological lands,” said Rolf Skar, the pony-tailed campaign director for the Siskiyou Project, an Oregon conservation group.
To the Bush administration, the lengthy environmental reviews and lawsuits that complicated the Forest Service’s plans to log a fraction of the burned acreage symbolize all that is wrong with forest regulations.
“What does it say to the world at large if we meet our wood supply needs from the new and old world tropics because we’re too aesthetically pure to harvest even dead trees on our own land?” asked Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service.
The administration is backing a Biscuit-inspired bill, passed by the House and pending in the Senate, that would make future salvage logging of burned forests much easier by greatly restricting environmental assessments of such projects.
The struggle over the fate of roadless lands was not resolved by the U.S. District Court decision, which revived Clinton’s road-building and logging ban on nearly a third of the country’s national forest system.
The Bush administration could readopt its rule -- which lets states take the lead in deciding to keep or drop the protections -- after undertaking the environmental reviews the court required. Or, Rey said, it could use a separate law, the Administrative Procedures Act, to let states move ahead with their requests.
The Biscuit fire burned country that has stirred passions for decades. There have been periodic efforts to make it into a national park. The first acts of anti-logging civil disobedience in the U.S. were staged here two decades ago.
A ruggedly steep and ancient landscape known as the Klamath-Siskiyou, the area sits at the junction of three mountain ranges, the Great Basin and California’s Central Valley, making it an ecological melting pot. The 1.8-million-acre Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which dips into California, contains a greater variety of plant life than any other national forest in the country, harboring tree species found nowhere else.
In August, four years after the Biscuit fire leaped across more than a quarter of the Rogue-Siskiyou, protesters were still setting up blockades, trying to stop the final timber projects planned for the burned area: logging in two roadless areas.
Forest Service officials say the projects aren’t destroying the land’s wilderness qualities because the wood is being hauled out by helicopter and no new roads have been constructed.
“We’re obviously not taking the logs out of the heart of a roadless area, gutting its potential,” said Rob Shull, ecosystem staff officer for the Rogue-Siskiyou.
As he spoke, a big red and white helicopter repeatedly dropped down into heavily wooded Mike’s Gulch, then rose like a giant thumping raptor trailing its prey -- a twin set of charred logs dangling from the end of a 250-foot-long steel cable.
The chopper was owned by Columbia Helicopters Inc., a major GOP donor that runs the world’s biggest helicopter-logging operation.
Nearby, the stack of timber waiting for trucks was as big as a three-story building, the great burned corpses of Douglas firs at least a century old. Some had started life well before the American Revolution.
“It’s the food for a new forest ... the last place we should be going for wood,” argued Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist who works with conservation groups in southern Oregon.
In congressional testimony this year, University of Washington forest resources professor Jerry F. Franklin, an old-growth expert, said downed logs and standing dead trees provide important habitat for as much as two-thirds of forest animal life.
“From an ecological perspective, it is better to harvest living trees from an intact forest than to remove dead trees from an intensely burned site,” he told a House Resources subcommittee.
But a year after the blaze, Oregon State University forestry professor John Sessions issued a report, financed by a timber-dependent southern Oregon county, that concluded it was economically worthwhile to harvest an enormous amount of dead wood from the burned land -- 2 billion board feet.
Unless extensive logging and replanting occurred, much of the blackened forest would permanently turn to brush, Sessions argued.
Then, last January, an OSU graduate student released a paper that found otherwise, concluding that earlier Biscuit salvage logging had destroyed tree seedlings naturally sprouting in abundance after the fire.
Sessions and other forestry faculty attacked the student’s research as flawed and tried unsuccessfully to block its final publication in the journal Science, prompting cries of censorship.
Rogue-Siskiyou Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy, who on an earlier tour of duty in Washington had overseen development of the Clinton roadless protections, used the Sessions report as a basis for his final decision to log 19,000 acres -- 43% of it roadless.
The planned cut amounted to 370 million board feet, enough to build 24,000 homes. It was more than three times the harvest initially favored by the Biscuit project team.
In the end, the team’s lower figures proved more realistic. Forest officials expect a total cut of 92 million board feet on 4,200 acres, 538 of them roadless.
Aerial surveys, it turned out, had greatly overestimated the amount of timber that could be commercially harvested.