From a rocky ridge deep in the Deschutes National Forest, the landscape unfolds below Forest Service ranger Bill Anthony like a surreal moonscape.

Hundreds of thousands of charred and naked trees stretch into the distance, their dead roots clinging to the ashy soil.

Just three months ago, these trees were part of a towering forest of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir that rolled over the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range. That was before a lightning storm started the Eyerly Fire, a blaze that consumed 24,000 acres in three weeks.

"It's in a very bad state right now," said Anthony, who oversees the Sisters Ranger District in central Oregon. "We need to get the hillsides stabilized."

The Eyerly Fire and dozens like it nationwide have cooled, but a passionate debate among environmentalists, the Forest Service and the timber industry over the remaining trees is heating up.

For years, timber companies and environmentalists have been at odds over logging after wildfires. Where the Sierra Club sees fragile and damaged forests, the timber industry sees valuable wood going to waste.

Last summer's dramatic wildfire season, coupled with President Bush's recent forest-thinning proposal, brings an urgency to the question of post-fire logging that has top-level Forest Service officials and environmentalists battling.

The question will not go away any time soon. Years of fire suppression on national forests have left unnaturally dense forests that are more prone to fire than ever before.

At stake is approximately 1.64 billion board feet of timber -- enough to build nearly 140,000 three-bedroom homes -- that has been logged or will be logged from federal forests after the 2000 and 2001 wildfire seasons. Numbers from the 2002 season are not yet available. A board foot is a slab a foot long and wide, and an inch thick.

To environmentalists, such post-fire logging is a recipe for disaster. They say it causes irreparable erosion that ruins fish-bearing streams, while removing dead wood that provides critical shelter for animals.

"A lot of the habitat value for these trees happens after they die," said Jeff Juel, ecosystem defense director at the Ecology Center in Missoula, Mont. "The whole idea of calling something salvage implies that it's something that would otherwise be wasted. Well, nature doesn't waste anything."

Such groups frequently use the courts to block post-fire salvage sales, citing scientific studies to challenge the Forest Service's logging projects.

Environmental groups challenged approximately 48 percent of post-fire timber sales proposed in 13 western states in 2000-01.

They have blocked 6 percent of those sales and delayed another 6 percent, until the uncut trees lost their commercial value and were rejected by timber companies, according to the survey.

One scientific study in particular, the Beschta Report, has been the bane of the Forest Service.

Environmentalists have used the report, prepared in 1995 by Oregon State University forestry professor Robert Beschta, to challenge six sales and won in four of those cases.

In a June 12 speech before the House Resources forestry subcommittee, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth lashed out at the report and what he called the resulting "analysis paralysis" within the agency.

"Hitting .333 is very good in baseball," he said, referring to the percentage of timber sales that survived challenges from the Beschta report. "It's not much of an average in natural resource case law."

The timber industry angrily questions the environmentalists' studies, and says good lumber is going to waste while logging moves to other countries where there is little environmental regulation.

"They're disgusted with the time that it takes and the waste of a public resource that could be turned into consumer products that we use every day. Instead, it's left to rot on the stump," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council.

In some cases, timber companies have sued the Forest Service after delayed sales, saying the agency violated its contract, West said.

Foresters, caught in the middle, say they spend more time on legal paperwork for each sale than they do in the field.

"We constantly have to rely on our legal counsels in Portland to make sure we're checking all the right places," said Paul Hart, spokesman for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in central Washington. "If someone doesn't want that project to proceed, they can question everything in there."

The truth is somewhere in the middle, said Jack Ward Thomas, Forest Service chief under President Bill Clinton and now conservation professor at the University of Montana at Missoula.

"It's complicated and there are no simple answers," Ward said. "Sometimes salvage doesn't make a damn lick of sense -- either ecological or economic sense -- and sometimes it makes enormous sense. We ought to quit arguing about this in its generality."

Even some environmental groups agree that post-fire logging that thins out the smaller trees and leaves big trees standing has ecological value. But the small trees have little commercial value and don't attract any bidders, the groups say, forcing the Forest Service to include more valuable trees.

The Forest Service insists that it proposes post-fire logging only in areas where it makes sense -- where dead trees could spread beetle infestation, where scorched stands need to be thinned or where fallen trees could create heavy fuel for future wildfires.

If the agency can get some commercial value from those projects, that's a bonus, they say. In some cases, restoration work, such as reseeding to prevent erosion, is funded by revenue from post-fire timber projects, said Anthony, the ranger from the Sisters District.

On the site of the Eyerly Fire, for example, Anthony will propose anywhere from 4 million to 30 million board feet of post-fire salvage logging.

Some of the logging will cut scorched trees that slant dangerously over frequently used Forest Service roads. The rest will focus on areas where burned patches could nurture destructive beetles that could spread into healthy forests where northern spotted owls thrive, he said.

Anthony also hopes that any sales will help pay for $1.1 million in post-fire restoration work on the fire site that probably won't be funded by Congress.

Yet Anthony is certain that post-fire logging plans on the Eyerly Fire will be appealed by environmentalists -- or even be the target of a lawsuit from frustrated timber companies.

"There's a lot of discussion about why we would do this, knowing we're probably going to wind up in appeals or possibly in litigation," he said. "We feel we need to take a responsible look at it and see if we're defensible from every perspective."

The timber industry says good lumber is going to waste after forest fires are put out. Environmentalists say forests then are too fragile for logging. Ranger Bill Anthony of the U.S. Forest Service points out the effects on the Deschutes National Forest by a large fire.