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Missoulian: No-salvage pledge

No-salvage pledge
By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian
Elizabeth Powers walks around the 6-foot-diameter slice of a 440-year-old tree in downtown Missoula on Friday at a display protesting President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative. The tree was cut in Oregon this year during a forest-thinning project.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Environmentalists say they'll fight every effort to log burned areas

The leader of a Missoula environmental group vowed Friday to oppose all salvage logging proposed in the wake of the 2003 wildfire season.

"We think salvage logging impedes the recovery of these burned areas," said Jake Kreilick, executive director of the National Forest Protection Alliance. "We are opposed to salvage logging."

Kreilick's pronouncement - made as his group began a cross-country "Healthy Forests Reality Tour" - brought a quick retort from Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey.

"I suppose these folks will appeal and litigate projects enough so some of the work needed to be done will in fact be stopped," Rey said. "And those moonscapes will stand as a monument to that idiocy."

"We are getting to the point of virtual insanity over this stuff," Rey said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. "We have reached a point where we are not doing what most people would agree is good stewardship in a timely fashion to restore ecological values."

Environmentalists have appealed every environmental impact statement written for burned-area recovery efforts after the 2002 fire season, the undersecretary said. This year, for the first time, environmentalists also challenged the removal of hazard trees - burned, dead trees in danger of falling over onto major highways or into campgrounds or other heavily populated places.

So far, Rey said, district courts have refused to grant injunctions that would stop the trees' removal while the lawsuits are argued.

Two environmental groups - the Native Forest Network and National Forest Protection Alliance - took their arguments to the public Friday afternoon, setting up shop in front of the Federal Building in Missoula with a slice from the trunk of a 440-year-old tree.

Dated to the 1560s and dubbed "the Shakespeare Tree" by activists, the tree was felled in April on the Mr. Wilson timber sale - a U.S. Bureau of Land Management project near Medford, Ore. The BLM said thinning was needed to clear dense thickets of trees, thereby increasing sunlight and moisture available to larger trees.

But Healthy Forests Reality Tour leader Derek Volkart wondered why, then, loggers took the 6-foot-diameter tree. (He has not asked the BLM about the tree, or the reasons for its removal.)

The point, Kreilick said, is that the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative disguises old-fashioned timber sales as "forest-thinning projects" needed to reduce the wildfire danger. And logging, he said, actually increases the fire danger by leaving the forest littered with debris.

"This administration is calling for the logging of ancient forests in the backcountry and ignoring the real fuel hazards that exist near homes and communities," Volkart said. "Their rhetoric is nothing more than a smokescreen for dramatically increasing logging in our public forests."

Both groups called on U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., to oppose the healthy forests bill up for consideration by the Senate this fall. The bill, Kreilick claimed, would "give the logging industry an additional $125 million in taxpayer subsidies for more logging in America's national forests, but provide absolutely no money for rural homeowners or communities to protect themselves from fire."

Spend the money in the wildland-urban interface, he said.

Burns was not available for an interview Friday afternoon, but spokesman J.P. Donovan said the healthy forests bill has no money attached to it. The bill is "authorizing language," he said, "not appropriations."

"This bill does not preclude work in the wildland-urban interface," Donovan said. "It just allows the Forest Service to work wherever it is needed the most. The whole state is on fire; this fuel-reduction work needs to be done all over the place."

The wildland-urban interface has been, and will continue to be, the top priority for fuel-reduction projects because of the growing threat to human life and property, Rey said. "But we've also said just as clearly that it is not the only priority. There are other areas that enjoy similar, if not identical, priorities - where treatment is justified and desirable."

Municipal watersheds must be a priority for forest-thinning dollars, he said. Much of the city of Denver's watershed burned during the 2002 wildfire season. So, too, must the habitat of threatened and endangered species be protected, he said. "We are losing habitat for endangered species with increasing frequency as these fires burn."

"This wildfire season has served as an exclamation point to the experience of the last several fire seasons," Rey said. "What we think we need to achieve are three things simultaneously:

"We need to set clear priorities on what forests should be treated first.

"We need to modernize our own administrative procedures so we can do the work better, faster and cheaper.

"And we need to increase the amount of money devoted to this effort. Each of the three has to occur for success to be achieved."

The vast majority of the trees removed in the name of forest health will be small-diameter, Rey said. "But there are areas where, to get down to the desired number of trees per acre, we will remove some trees that are decent-sized."

"Or where the problem is the spread of pine beetles or other insect infestations, the size of the tree is irrelevant," he added. "It's whether the tree has been infected or not, and whether the infestation can be stopped by removing it."

Kreilick, however, dinged the administration's approach to forest health, saying it "will limit the ability of the American people to participate in public land management, undermine America's bedrock environmental law and interfere with the U.S. court system - all to increase logging in the national forests."

What's so bad about forest fires? Kreilick asked. "We would maintain that these fires are not that far out of whack. We agree that forest conditions have changed, but the biggest problem we have right now is the Forest Service's phobia over not letting these fires burn."

When wildfires advance on homes and communities, they need to be suppressed, he said. "But those burning away from communities are different. The best thing that could happen in some of those places is a wildfire."

Certainly, trees can be removed by logging, Kreilick said, but nature would do that job by setting fire to the forest.

Some of the forest-health debate is simply a difference in philosophies, he said. "We look more at the ecological role of fire in the natural world. We see fire as a natural, healthy part of the ecosystem. Of all the uses of the national forests, we want to make sure the ecological uses are considered first and foremost."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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