One of the American West's more contentious environmental debates is the question of salvage logging on the public lands. Timber harvested in forests recently visited by the searing effects of wildfire.
The drought summer of 2000 saw approximately seven million acres burn in the West. Most of these fires occurred on federal land, particularly National Forest (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acreage. In the Bitterroot Valley and its eponymous national forest in western Montana, 307,000 acres burned (along with 58,000 acres of state and private parcels), the infernos threatening the towns of Hamilton, Darby and Sula. Firefighters battled the flames to save ranches, subdivisions and the trophy log palaces of the rich and famous. Despite their valiant efforts, this holocaust consumed seventy homes. And the resulting sea of charred timber is now at the center of a controversy that we in the West are numbingly familiar with.
This past December, Mark Rey, Undersecretary of Agriculture overseeing the U.S. Forest Service, signed "The Burn Area Recovery Plan" for the Bitterroot National Forest, based on recommendations of Forest Service staff in the field. The proposed sale called for 176 million board feet to be cut on a checkerboard of 40,000 acres, a mere 15 percent of the total federal burn. This is good forestry in the sense that much of the Bitterroot is roadless and the timber inaccessible, and riparian zones (river and creek bottoms) were wisely avoided. Though what galls environmentalists is that 176 million board feet is an eighteen-fold increase in the Bitterroot's average annual cut over the last decade. Through the '90s the annual timber cut on the public lands decreased from 12 billion board feet to 3 billion in recent years. The fires of 2000 (and the less destructive 2001 season, for that matter) were a predictable result of the astoundingly incompetent forestry practices of the Clinton-era Departments of Agriculture and Interior. The forests of the West are diseased, insect-infested, brush-choked and ready to burn, and will continue to do so.
Due to time restraints and using Department of Agriculture loopholes, Mark Rey attempted to push the Bitterroot sale through by bypassing normal Forest Service channels for local public hearings and a lengthy period to take in written public comment. Not so fast, said Federal District Judge Donald W. Molloy of Missoula, who on January 7 ordered the Recovery Plan to be put on hold, ruling that Rey's action was "presumptuous….strained" and that the Forest Service "took the law into its own hands." Rey's actions might seem at first capricious, but he had good reasons.
Some forest fires burn so hot as to leave the woods a wasteland of ash, and the trees nothing more than standing charcoal. But trees singed in moderate blazes are still valuable as marketable timber because only the bark and outer layer of wood is blackened. Yet the tree is still dead, and left to stand for two or three years will become host to insects and disease, and slowly begin to rot, making it worthless as lumber, and a secondary fire hazard as it eventually falls and joins the dead-fuel load on the ground.
One of the tactics employed by environmental Luddites today is -- through litigation -- the stalling of bidded salvage timber sales offered by the Forest Service. If these cases can be kept alive in the courts for years -- something not unheard of -- the trees rot, become unmarketable, and the whole exercise becomes moot. Environmentalists, in their endless quest to destroy the capitalist component in the management of the public lands, cite a long litany of "dangers" associated with salvage logging: new roads, stream erosion in burned areas after rain, and the depriving of woodpeckers and other birds of a favorite habitat -- dead trees. Needless to say, the 1973 Endangered Species Act is many times their courtroom weapon of choice.
Judge Molloy's rebuke to the Forest Service was the direct result of a coordinated lawsuit brought in Federal District Court in Missoula by seven environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. According to Mark Andersen, a "forest analyst" for the latter group, the initial courtroom victory will "prevent the [Bush] administration from gutting the appeals process." Ironically, it seems that "gutting the appeals process" is exactly what's needed to speed up legitimate salvage sales.
This is the view of new U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, the former regional forester for Montana and Idaho, who once assisted in managing the Bitterroot. Bosworth has oft been quoted to the effect that the Forest Service is trapped in a state of "analysis paralysis," the "difficult, costly, confusing and seemingly endless processes" required by his own agency's glacially slow bureaucracy, coupled with the torments of unremitting litigation and Green-sympathetic judges like Molloy. In the Bitterroot case, Bosworth has no choice but to place himself at the mercy of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, a legal venue notorious for its liberal judicial activism and sympathy for the causes of western environmentalists.
Paradoxically, much salvage logging is being accomplished in the Bitterroot Valley this winter. The State of Montana has extensive holdings, and much salvage work is also being done on private land. The Sula State Forest, a popular recreation area, burned extensively, and recent salvage work there pumped $3.5 million in revenues into Montana public schools.
As usual, the West continues to suffer the idiocies of a bureaucratic federal government manipulated by the environmental Left and its endless opportunities for legal mischief. In the future, one hopes that the Bush administration will reform these agencies that are the legacy of years of Clinton-era public lands mismanagement.
But for now in the Bitterroot the trees will soon start to rot, and a brand new fire season is only months away. And Judge Molloy, the Sierra Club, and their ilk will only fiddle as it burns.
Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.
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