Coming through the Rye 

A lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups this spring has led the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw a 722-acre timber salvage sale proposed for North Rye Creek near Darby. But still, the future of its watershed, which has suffered many hardships over the decades, remains uncertain.

Last September, wildfire burned 4,000 acres on Rye Creek. Because dead trees lose their commercial value in just a few seasons, the Forest Service was anxious to sell the timber quickly through a salvage sale. To expedite the sale, former Darby District Ranger Stuart Lovejoy declared it exempt from the usual requirements for an environmental assessment and public review.

In turn, the Friends of the Bitterroot, American Wildlands, the Sierra Club Bitterroot-Mission Group, and The Ecology Center appealed the sale to the Regional Forester, then sued in May when the appeal was denied. An assessment was necessary, they argued, because of Rye Creek's history of severe logging-inflicted damage. And as specialists both inside and outside the agency are pointing out, Rye Creek has yet to recover from what they see as decades of abuse.

Just over 10 years ago, Rye Creek was by some accounts the most productive stream for trout-including the threatened bull trout-in the Bitterroot Valley. Today, it is "arguably the most severely damaged watershed in the Bitterroot," says geologist and environmentalist Larry Campbell, who has lived on Rye Creek for 21 years.

The site exceeds by several times the standards set for sedimentation and road density by the Bitterroot National Forest Plan, and doesn't meet the plan's standards for elk habitat or old-growth retention. It's also listed as a "water quality limited" stream, which means it can't support wildlife or human use as well as it should.

Photo by Larry Campbell
The North Fork of Rye Creek already has a higher road density than the Forest Service plan allows.

It's a "classic example of cumulative effects," Campbell says. Thirty years ago, Rye Creek's public lands were at ground zero of the Bitterroot clear-cut controversy, which galvanized national opposition to industrial-style forestry that stripped off the trees and left unstable, gullied streams. Later attempts to slow erosion by plowing terraces along hillsides only disrupted the soil more, says Bitterroot National Forest soil scientist Ken McBride.

Then during the 1990s, Campbell says, the Darby Lumber Company built more roads and logged its holdings along lower Rye Creek, effectively smothering the stream. Although a little bit of sediment supplies vital nutrients to the bottom of the food chain, too much kills the microscopic plants and animals and destroys fish spawning beds.

Although last year's fire encompassed a fairly large area-over six square miles-it didn't consume every tree in its path and left many spots within its perimeter with minimal or no damage. But on Rye Creek, it only compounded the human-inflicted damage.

That's why activists say Rye Creek needs a break.

Ken McBride contributed to the salvage plan, and added several stipulations to minimize its impact: The logging must be carried out on a minimum of six inches of packed snow in winter to reduce soil damage; cables must be used to pull logs up steep slopes; areas damaged by cables must be reseeded; and a percentage of the dead trees would be left in place as snags or cut down to rot back into the soil.

McBride saw that the soil was already more badly compacted than guidelines allow, and that there was very little woody debris to provide nutrients and help slow erosion. He says he was "not in favor of" the salvage sale, and was "uneasy about it all along." As he puts it, "My preference is that we just walk away from it."

But Lovejoy felt that the salvage sale would not cause any significant damage. In fact, his "decision memo" announcing the sale shows that one of his top priorities was to meet the Forest Plan's mandate to benefit the local economy through timber harvest. "I believe it would be wasteful and irresponsible to not remove some of the fire-killed trees where such can be done in a way that protects the resources," he wrote. The actual value of the timber is not yet known, however, as no formal appraisal has been carried out.

Shortly after the suit was filed, the Forest Service backed down. In early June, U. S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that given Rye Creek's precarious condition, the agency had violated its own procedures in exempting the sale from an environmental assessment, and that the plaintiffs had a good chance of winning the case.

But the reprieve may only be temporary. According to Bitterroot National Forest Public Affairs Officer Dixie Dees, the sale area is still being monitored to see how well the soil and water recover from the fire and whether it might still be able to handle the salvage logging activity next winter. "There's no decision one way or the other," Dees says.

Neither is there an official willingness to follow Ken McBride's advice. "I would just as soon we did nothing and let the land heal," he says.

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