Deal? What deal? 

Enviros challenge validity of salvage logging deal

A compromise agreement signed by environmentalists, loggers and Forest Service officials may not be the final word on logging in the post-fire Bitterroot National Forest. The agreement, signed on Feb. 7, allows 60 million board feet of timber to be harvested.

The settlement negotiation, ordered by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, was to settle the issue of logging on the Bitterroot forest—how much and where—in the aftermath of the 2000 fire season. What it didn’t settle is the matter of the public’s right to appeal the Burned Area Recovery (BAR) decision, which is still wide open, as far as some environmentalists are concerned. It’s left environmental groups sore with one another over what has been perceived as selling out. It has participating environmentalists angry at what they call bad faith bargaining on the part of the U.S. Forest Service. And it has non-participating environmentalists making regular forays into the woods to keep an eye on the approved timber sales.

“Actually,” says Spike Thompson, acting forest supervisor for the Bitterroot National Forest, “we’ve settled the whole issue.”

In a nutshell, the agreement calls for logging on nearly 15,000 acres now. Another 12,200 acres considered roadless by environmentalists but not by the Forest Service were taken off the negotiating table, and may or may not be logged someday.

The agreement allows the Forest Service to implement timber sales on those off-the-table roadless lands at some point in the future, but they would be subject to a new round of environmental analyses.

Whether that will actually occur remains to be seen. Thompson says that those lands may never be logged. Environmentalists point to supervisor Rodd Richardson’s statement that they would, and accuse the agency of bargaining in bad faith.

If the roadless lands are considered for logging, they’ll have to undergo a 12- to 18-month environmental analysis, Thompson says. But the wood would likely lose whatever value it has in that time frame, which might force the agency to pay people under service contracts to complete the agency’s projects, be they road decommissioning, tree planting or salvage logging. “These are facts,” Thompson says. “If the wood deteriorates to the point the wood is not valuable we’d have to look at service contracts to go into these areas.”

But he concedes that convincing Congress to fund service contracts will be difficult given the huge financial commitment to the war on terrorism.

In the long run, then, 60 million board feet may be as much as the timber industry will get out of a plan that initially proposed 180 million board feet.

Jim Olsen, a volunteer with the environmental group Friends of the Bitterroot, believes the Forest Service is ready to move forward with new analyses in the roadless areas, arguing that Richardson said as much immediately after the settlement was reached. Those comments dealt a blow to the environmentalists who were at the negotiating table and who walked away believing that those roadless areas would be left untouched.

Though the agreement clearly states that those roadless lands could someday be released to logging, Olsen and Mary Anne Peine, executive director of the Ecology Center and a participant in the negotiations, say Richardson violated the spirit of the agreement when he said the agency would consider those lands for logging. That statement, Olsen says, angered other environmentalists, including those who advocate “zero cut” on public lands, who were ready to accept the 60 million board compromise. “We feel the spirit of the agreement is they’ll stay out of these areas,” says Peine.

Not all environmentalists were happy with the agreement. An Oregon group chastised the participants, accusing the groups of selling out.

But Friends of the Bitterroot maintains that giving up 60 million board feet to protect roadless areas from development was a good compromise. Says Peine, “I think even people who were there recognize it was a lot. It was a bitter pill to swallow.”

Olsen also insists that the agreement binds only the signatories. Other interested citizens, including environmentalists and loggers who did not participate in the settlement negotiation, still have a right to appeal the final record of decision on the overall salvage logging and restoration project. Citizens left out of the settlement negotiation, Olsen says, “could say, ‘What about our rights?’” Lawsuits over that issue, he says, are being discussed.

The Forest Service has already rejected one appeal, however. A Washington, D.C. environmentalist, representing the John Muir Project, attempted to appeal the Burned Area record of decision in late January, but his appeal was rejected in mid-February.

Jake Kreilick, campaign director for the National Forest Protection Alliance, says his group considered, and rejected, a court battle over the appeal issue. “Obviously,” he says, “over 4,000 people commented on this thing, and there weren’t 4,000 people in on this settlement. What we’re trying to do [rather than sue] is build as much evidence as to why salvage logging is not the way to restore the burned lands.”

Environmentalists out of the settlement loop say they will monitor the timber sales to ensure that loggers adhere to best management practices, a voluntary industry guideline to environmentally sound logging.

Already, Kreilick says, the environmental monitors have seen evidence that green trees, rather than burned trees, are being cut, and that trees are being cut in riparian areas. “Trust me when I say there are some massive [green] ponderosa pines and [Douglas] fir that are marked to be cut.”

The Forest Service, however, insists that no green trees are slated for harvest.

If Kreilick and others can document excessive damage to the forest by poor harvest techniques, they’ll build a case “and go back to Molloy and say, ‘Look, we told you so.’”

Until that day comes—and some environmentalists both in and out of the negotiating room insist that it will—the Feb. 7 agreement constitutes nothing more than the first phase of what they say will be a long, drawn-out battle for control of the national forest.

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