Move to Log Fire-Damaged Trees Ignites Controversy ; Agriculture Department May Decide the Issue This Week for Bitterroot Forest, Possibly Setting a Precedent

Article excerpt

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. …