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GAO blames govt. for logging losses

by Matthew Daly, Sacramento Bee 10/4/06

WASHINGTON (AP) - A government study blamed the Bush administration, not lawsuits by environmentalists, for adding to the cost of a logging project in which the government spent $11 million to salvage less than $9 million in timber from a wildfire.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the administration's decision to dramatically increase logging, coupled with the size of the fire and the complexity of environmental laws, led to delays.

The so-called "Biscuit fire" burned almost 500,000 acres in Oregon and California in 2002, making it largest wildfire in the lower 48 states since 1997.

The Bush administration and its Republican allies contended that lawsuits filed by environmentalists led to the increased costs.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, said the report released Wednesday demonstrated the need for a new law sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., to speed up logging of burned forests and tree planting after storms and wildfires.

"The pattern of litigation-related delays associated with this project bears poignant witness to the need for congressional action on Greg Walden's post-catastrophic restoration bill, as the president called for in Los Angeles," Rey said.

The bill would order that federal forests hit by disasters larger than 1,000 acres be restored within months, rather than years, before insects and rot set in, diminishing the commercial value of fire-killed timber.

President Bush urged Congress to pass the bill during a visit Tuesday to Southern California, where a giant wildfire about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles was extinguished after nearly a month.

"I believe Congress needs to pass further law that will enable us to restore forests once they've been burned," Bush said.

In an interview, Rey said techniques authorized by the bill could have allowed officials to begin work on the Biscuit project years earlier, "and diminished timber values could have been avoided."

Environmental groups and most Democrats oppose the salvage-logging bill, arguing that cutting large old trees and planting new ones makes forests more vulnerable to new fires and less valuable as habitat for fish and wildlife. They say it is better to allow forests to come back on their own.

New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the GAO report demonstrated that the Bush administration overreached in its efforts to log large areas burned by the Biscuit fire.

"Taxpayers are going to have to spend millions more just cleaning up the damage from the logging than the government made from the timber sales," Bingaman said. "At the same time, promises of community fire protection, habitat restoration and scientific analyses remain unscheduled and unfulfilled."

Overall, 12 salvage sales in the burned areas were completed by the end of 2005, resulting in harvests of about 67 million board feet of timber, the GAO report said. The total was less than one-fifth of the 367 million board feet proposed for sale in an environmental impact statement issued by the Bush administration in 2004.

A board foot is the volume of a piece of wood 1-foot square and 1-inch thick. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a modest two-bedroom home.

"Forest staff overestimated the timber available for harvest," the report said, adding that administration estimates that salvage logging would create about 6,900 local jobs and $240 million in regional economic activity now appear overly optimistic.

The Forest Service and other agencies have spent $5 million and expect to spend an additional $5.7 million on the salvage sale of wood and other related costs, the report said. Timber sales from the logging are expected to generate about $8.8 million in revenue.

Walden, in a statement, said the Senate should adopt the House-passed bill.

"With this fire season's record scorching of lands, it's time to stop fiddling, change the law, free our foresters to respond ... and remove the burned dead trees while they have value," he said.

Wildfire "is the Katrina of our forests, and the Senate is failing to act," Walden said.

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