In the wildfire-prone West, a long and contentious debate over how best to regenerate charred forests – especially in mountainous areas with no easy access – is flaring anew.
Over the weekend, the US Forest Service auctioned off logging rights to an area here in Oregon that was damaged in the 500,000-acre "Biscuit Fire" in 2002. The decision to move forward with "salvage" logging of burned timber there represents the first major confrontation over remote public lands since last year, when the Bush administration reversed a rule that banned commercial development in 59 million roadless acres across the West.
The Forest Service and the timber industry say large standing trees that have been killed by fire can be carefully logged using helicopters, then replanted with seedlings. So do a majority of US representatives, who recently passed a bill, now headed for the US Senate, that would accelerate salvage logging in roadless areas.
But many forest ecologists say such logging inhibits natural regeneration, resulting in young, even-age forests more prone to future fires. In a recent letter to Congress, 169 scientists wrote: "Although logging and replanting may seem like a reasonable way to clean up and restore forests after disturbances like wildland fires, such activity would actually slow the natural recovery of forests and of streams and creatures within them."
In another recent letter to Congress, a group of current and retired smokejumpers and members of "hotshot" firefighting teams warned that opening up roadless national forest areas to salvage logging "would make forests more flammable and increase the safety risks for wildland firefighters."
Meanwhile, the governors of Oregon, Washington, California, and New Mexico are challenging the Bush administration in court over its repeal of the Clinton-era rule on roadless areas. That case is scheduled to be argued in federal court in August.
Such logging also is opposed by companies such as The North Face, Patagonia, and Nike. Outdoor recreation clubs including hunting and fishing organizations also oppose logging in national forest roadless areas.
Nevertheless, Congress is moving toward allowing more salvage logging in roadless federal forest areas. The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act passed 243-182 in the House May 17 and is likely to clear the Senate as well. The bill would expedite environmental reviews of such logging. Forest Service officials and the timber industry say it prevents the deterioration of fire-damaged trees, which can lessen their economic value. It's also meant to reduce the "analysis paralysis" – mainly through environmental lawsuits – that Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth has complained of.
"This legislation will enable us to utilize dead timber instead of letting it go to waste and to responsibly restore the health and diversity of our forests after a catastrophic event like fire or hurricane," Rep. Brian Baird (D) of Washington, one of the bill's coauthors, said when the House vote was taken. "The bottom line is, people use wood – to build homes, to make paper – and that wood needs to come from somewhere."
When the Bush administration last year reversed the rule protecting roadless federal land, it said governors would have the opportunity to petition the federal government on whether such land in their states should be open to logging.
Last Friday, the Forest Service opened up for bid a fire-damaged area of the Siskiyou National Forest called "Mike's Gulch," in southwestern Oregon.
Oregon Gov. Theodore Kulongoski (D) called this "unneeded and unwise."
"Opening this particular roadless area to salvage logging now – when we are in the process of preparing a petition to the federal government on the proper management of those areas – contradicts the assurances the Bush administration has made that the governors' opinions on such issues will be respected," Governor Kulongoski said in a statement. Kulongoski is seeking a temporary restraining order in the Mike's Gulch salvage-logging timber sale.
Now that the 2006 forest fire season has begun, more such cases are likely.
As of June 2, the Wilderness Society reported, the acreage burned so far this year is "significantly higher than the 10-year average": 42,471 wildland fires to date compared with 35,234 fires, burning a total of 2.5 million acres to date compared with 788,254 acres.
This is a particular concern to Western governors, Duane Smith, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, told a House subcommittee last month. Testifying on behalf of the Western Governors' Association, Mr. Smith told lawmakers, "We are already seeing the impacts of drought in 2006."