Early this week, the Bush administration will answer a question that will not only reveal another layer of the president's natural-resource agenda, but could also set a precedent for how America's national forests are managed.
At issue is whether fire-damaged trees on public lands should be regarded foremost as commodities whose market value can be salvaged through logging, or if they should simply be left to decompose as part of the natural cycle of life.
The announcement by Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who is expected to endorse a logging plan, is likely to inflame a controversy dating back to the day nearly 18 months ago when epic wildfires on the Bitterroot National Forest in western Montana were put out.
The plan would piece together the largest single sale of burned trees in the history of the US Forest Service. Mr. Rey maintains it will produce jobs, boost struggling local economies, and restore a blighted landscape.
Conservationists, meanwhile, claim that Rey, a former timber-industry lobbyist, is merely using restoration as a ploy to revitalize commercial logging, bypass public scrutiny, and skirt environmental regulations.
"For those [in the environmental community] who want to advocate no commercial timber harvest of these trees, we're past the point of argument," says Bitterroot Forest supervisor Rodd Richardson, who recently completed an environmental review process that garnered 4,000 comments, many opposing the sale. "We've made the decision that harvesting some of these trees is a legitimate action."
In the summer of 2000, more than 300,000 acres of the Bitterroot Forest burned. Some areas were so hot that soils were sterilized, and evergreen seeds essential to new tree growth were incinerated.
Now, massive replanting is necessary, as well as intensive human intervention to thwart invasions of noxious weeds and to remove dead, partially charred trees that could fuel another major fire, Mr. Richardson says.
Under the plan, about 180 million board feet of dead and green trees would be felled over the next two to three years - more than the volume of logs sent to mills from Bitterroot during the past 15 years combined.
Figured another way, notes Matthew Koehler, spokesman for the Native Forest Network, the sale area applies to 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles of forest, and would fill a lane of logging trucks lined up over 300 miles.
Historically, the Bitterroot Forest has had a high profile in shaping federal land policy. During the 1960s, public outrage over the forestry practice called clear-cutting prompted Congress to pass two seminal laws giving citizens the right to challenge questionable management actions.
What happens now on the Bitterroot is viewed as a harbinger of how millions of other acres in the West will be managed following wildfires.
One thing is certain, says Patrick Heffernan, staff forester with the Montana Logging Association: Nature's clock is ticking. The longer that the blackened trees are left standing, the more the wood decomposes and cracks, diminishing its commercial value. "Not only might we lose an opportunity for communities to benefit economically, and for the Forest Service to use logging as a way to fund rehabilitation, but we've created a process of delayed decisionmaking that borders on futility," Mr. Heffernan says.
But Bob Ekey, northern Rockies regional director for the Wilderness Society, says logging will cause serious damage, particularly to streams.
Overlooked, he says, is the ecological value of leaving dead trees in place to serve as erosion barriers, to fertilize the soil as they decay, and to provide habitat for cavity-nesting birds and other wildlife.
"This is all part of the Bush administration's push to cater to the timber and mining and oil and gas industries, while at the same time excluding the concerned public from being involved in public-land decisions," Mr. Ekey claims.
It's ironic, however, that while the Bush administration wants the salvage operation to proceed to create jobs and benefit the local economy, there are no sawmills left in the Bitterroot Valley.
All have gone out of business - several over the past 20 years - as total timber volumes cut on national forests fell from 12 billion board feet at the end of the 1980s to less than 3 billion board feet today.
The crash came after numerous studies showed unsustainable overcutting had hurt habitat for wildlife and fish, necessitating their protection through the Endangered Species Act.
In fact, 34 percent of the Bitterroot logging would occur in pristine roadless lands. Streams that snake through the area are important to the survival of endangered bull trout and imperiled cutthroat trout.