Western fire season tests politics, ecology

Two years after half a million Northwest acres burned, one key debate is over logging vs. preserving the remains.

Two summers ago, during one of the nation's worst wildfire seasons, the "Biscuit Fire" in Oregon and California roared through 499,965 acres of national forest and wilderness. It took four months, 7,000 firefighters, and $153 million to bring it under control. Even then, what became the largest fire of the year continued to smolder until December rains soaked the charred ground.

As the US moves into what is likely to be another very difficult, drought-driven fire season across the West, the federal government is trying to find the best way to repair, protect, and eventually manage more sustainably those areas that have had massive burns.

This week's proposal to address the aftermath of the Biscuit Fire is a prime example. It allows for the logging of thousands of charred trees, but it also includes expansion of a protected wilderness area. It's a Solomonic compromise: Neither environmentalists nor the timber industry is entirely happy with the decision.

Officials know they have to tread carefully through both the politics and the ecology of fire restoration if they are to achieve their goal without getting tied up in the lawsuits and partisan sniping that have marked the timber wars of the past. Coincidentally, Greenpeace - the activist group better known for saving whales - set up its first "forest rescue station" nearby this week. With solar-powered satellite communications systems operating from portable dome tents, the group intends to publicize and possibly interfere with logging activities.

"The majority of Americans don't want our centuries-old forests put on the chopping block," says Greenpeace forest campaigner Ginger Cassady.

Aside from the typical battles over logging versus preservation, the Klamath-Siskiyou mountain area here is unique. One of the most diverse temperate conifer forests in the world, it supports several endangered animals (including the notorious Northern spotted owl) and 1,800 rare plants, 131 of which exist nowhere else. The World Conservation Union has designated it an "area of global botanical significance," and the World Wildlife Fund has posted forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala full-time here. Several rivers designated as "wild and scenic" were seen in the film "The River Wild."

But the area also is one of the most timber-rich in the West, and federal agencies (the US Forest Service and the US Bureau of Land Management) are tasked with providing for "multiple uses," including logging and mining as well as conservation and recreation.

President Bush came here two years ago to tout his "Healthy Forests Initiative," which would increase brush thinning and tree cutting on some 20 million acres of federal land while also mandating a time limit on legal appeals of logging plans.

From the Bush administration's and the timber industry's point of view, dealing with burned-over land like the Biscuit is urgent business. They want to log and mill downed and fire-damaged trees before these succumb to insects and rot and lose their value as lumber and plywood. And they want to set a pattern whereby future fires are similarly dealt with.

At the moment, according to federal fire officials, there are 129 wildfires burning with "very high to extreme fire indices ... reported in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Wyoming."

Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry trade group in Portland, Ore., points out that "[more than] 90 percent of the 500,000 acres burned will be left to Mother Nature."

"One of the consequences of not responsibly salvaging a portion of this fire-killed timber, is that to meet domestic consumer demand, green trees will need to be harvested, possibly from foreign soils," says Mr. West. "That is neither good environmental nor social policy."

Environmentalists and some forest ecologists say logging and then replanting leads to even-aged tree plantations which inevitably are more prone to devastating fires. Fire is an inevitable and regenerative part of nature, they insist.

What particularly rankles about the just-announced plan for the Biscuit Fire area is that more than half the trees slated to be cut are in roadless areas. Even though helicopters would lift most of the logs out of the forest, activists say, logging activities would damage areas marked by steep slopes and fragile soil.

In crafting the plan announced this week, the Forest Service reduced the proposed timber cutting by 30 percent. Still, the 370 million board-feet of timber (roughly enough to fill 62,000 log trucks) slated for sale to lumber mills represents one of the largest timber sales in recent history. That is enough wood to build approximately 24,000 homes. But like most timber sales from federal land, it will cost taxpayers more than the revenue it generates.

"By far the least expensive option for taxpayers is to let Biscuit recover on its own," says Joseph Vail of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, Ore. Environmentalists say federal money would be better spent thinning trees and brush in the "urban-wildland interface" where inhabited areas are most vulnerable to fire.

That's an argument the timber industry and environmental groups have been having for years. As the West continues to experience thousands of wildfires every year, it no doubt will continue.

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