Burned Tract Goes to Bid As Logging Rules Upheld

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

The Forest Service is planning to take timber company bids tomorrow to log 350 acres in the largest swath of roadless forest along the Pacific Northwest's coastline after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit yesterday rejected efforts to block the sale.

Forest Service and timber industry officials said the auction for helicopter logging in Oregon's Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which must draw a minimum bid of roughly $235,500, is an attempt to salvage logs damaged by a 2002 forest fire. But environmentalists said it marks the first time officials are allowing logging under new forest rules issued by the Bush administration two years ago.

The fight over Mike's Gulch, a steep slope of primarily Douglas fir trees lying in 367,000 acres of protected forest, opens a new front in the long-running battle over the nation's roadless areas. In July 2004, the administration reversed a Clinton-era rule that had made nearly 60 million acres of national forest off-limits to road-building and development; the Forest Service is now pressing ahead with timber auctions in these areas.

Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said the move to auction timber in Mike's Gulch and a separate 1,000-acre area nearby next month is a way for the federal government to make money and cope with damage from the "Biscuit" fire that roared through the region four years ago.

"What we are doing is addressing that catastrophic fire," Walsh said, adding that the area would not have been protected under the Clinton policy because of the fire damage. "It has nothing to do with the roadless rule."

But Rich Fairbanks -- a Forest Service officer who led the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project before he retired and now works for the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group -- said the logging would damage a pristine landscape on its way to recovery. The area provides habitat for species ranging from the spotted owl to steelhead trout.

"They are changing it from a wild area to more of a tree farm operation," Fairbanks said. "There's really no good economic reason to do this. There's no good ecological reason to do this."

A coalition of Western governors and environmental groups have sought to block the new logging regulations but have been unsuccessful so far. Walsh said federal authorities offered to abandon the two impending Oregon auctions if environmentalists dropped their suits, but the advocacy groups refused.

Aides to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D), who along with the governors of California, New Mexico and Washington went to court in an effort to keep roadless forest areas off-limits, said yesterday that the logging will deprive the state of some of its oldest trees.

"The only trees that have any real value in the area are the old-growth trees," said Michael Carrier, Kulongoski's policy director for natural resources.

But timber officials argue that they could have logged a broader range of trees if activists had not spent so much time trying to block the salvage sales.

"What the environmentalists have been trying to do is create more wilderness without having to go through Congress," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council. "You would think we were cutting the last tree in Medford, Oregon, if you listen to the rhetoric."

Friday's sale will involve a tiny fraction of the Siskiyou forest, the Forest Service's Walsh said, and will not require construction of new roads. Timber companies would have to clear some areas to land helicopters and would then transport the logs to existing roads, which the government would pay more than $130,000 to refurbish under the terms of the auction.

Walsh said the federal government will make money off this week's timber auction, but public watchdog groups are skeptical. Franz Matzner, a senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, noted that there are already 430,000 miles of road in national forests, and that the government faces $10 billion in maintenance costs it has been unable to pay.

"The last thing taxpayers need is more roads the Forest Service has proven it can't adequately manage," Matzner said.

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