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Salvage Logging on Big Oregon Burn Termed Radical

MEDFORD, Oregon, January 12, 2004 (ENS) - Sparked by lightning on July 13, 2002, the Biscuit Fire was one of the largest wildfires in Oregon history. Now the U.S. Forest Service has released a draft plan for salvage logging that environmentalists say would be an equally large disaster. The public comment period has been extended by 15 days to January 20.

The Biscuit Fire burned for 120 days, blackening 499,965 acres in southern Oregon and northern California. When the wildfire was at its most destructive, more than 7,000 firefighters and support personnel were assigned, and fighting it cost the taxpayers $153 million.

The fire boundary stretches from 10 miles east of the coastal community of Brookings, Oregon; south into northern California; east to the Illinois Valley; and north to within a few miles of the Rogue River.

The burn area, also known as the greater Siskiyou Wild Rivers area, has been considered a national treasure since the 1930s. Shielded from glaciation for 50 million years, it is a storehouse of botanical richness and diversity.

fire

The Biscuit Fire was one of the largest on record in Oregon. (All photos courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
The Biscuit Fire burned through nearly all of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the headwaters of the Chetco and Smith Rivers, the Forest Service explains in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), released in November. The fire swept across major tributaries to the Illinois River below Cave Junction, destroying four homes and nine outbuildings.

"Millions of trees were burned, and habitat for various plant, wildlife, and fish, including threatened, endangered, and sensitive species, was altered or destroyed," the DEIS states.

The fire burned in a mosaic pattern; approximately 20 percent of the area burned lightly, with less than 25 percent of the vegetation killed. Another 50 percent of the area burned very hot, with more than 75 percent of the vegetation killed.

Since many acres of critical wildlife habitat burned, the remaining old growth stands are "very precious," the Forest Service said. Recovery of the fire area is beginning, with flowers, brush and hardwoods re-sprouting amidst the burned trees. In the Cave Junction area, some salmon returned this year to spawn on the Illinois River.

Next year, says the Forest Service, is the time to do salvage logging to benefit humans and the environment. On the human side, it would recover merchantable timber before the value of the wood is lost to deterioration; improve firefighter safety; reduce the risk of high intensity fire on public and private lands, and nearby communities; and help foresters learn about post-fire environments and different strategies to manage resources in those environments.

fire

Forest Service worker treks through land charred by the Biscuit Fire.
On the environmental side, the Forest Service says its proposed salvage logging plan would protect remaining late successional, or old-growth, forest habitat used by threatened and endangered species such as the spotted owl.

It would also accelerate restoration of habitats of concern to desirable conditions, maintaining and restoring water quality and reducing potential chronic sediment delivery to streams.

"There is no permanent road construction associated with this effort, and no green trees will be harvested," the Service says.

Of the seven alternative plans outlined in the DEIS, the Forest Service prefers one that would permit logging of 518 million board feet over 29,090 acres, and set fire to 91,000 additional acres in prescribed burns.

The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance calls this "massive" salvage logging plan "radical," warning that the government's plan to cut 518 million board feet across 29,090 acres, including 12,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas, is "more forest than they logged across all Pacific Northwest national forests last year."

"Old growth reserves, wild and scenic rivers, unstable slopes, and green unburned forests are all at risk under this radical logging plan," the alliance says.

In this "heart of biodiversity in western North America," says Rolf Skar, campaign director with the Siskiyou Project, logging would be "like drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

The organization cites research showing that post-fire logging can "increase fire risk" and "impair natural rejuvenation," causing many of the same environmental impacts as the logging of unburned forests.

"Heavy equipment can damage sensitive fire-affected soils, create erosion, and harm regrowth. Removing fire-killed trees truncates critical ecological processes since such trees provide wildlife habitat, rejuvenate soils, reduce erosion; and when deposited into streams and rivers, dead trees create crucial habitat for wild salmon and trout," the environmental organization says.

To strengthen its argument, the alliance points to a recent report by the economic consulting firm ECONorthwest showing that logging in the Biscuit fire area, much of it steep roadless backcountry, likely would cost taxpayers more than the revenue produced.

The economists predict that Biscuit post-fire logging would flood an already over-supplied log market, driving prices lower and hurting smaller, private timberland owners.

In its DEIS, the Forest Service acknowledges that salvage logging could harm soil productivity in the area. "Surface erosion, displacement and compaction of soils from salvage harvesting could affect soil productivity by displacing soils and reducing infiltration rates and water-hold capacity," the DEIS says.

forest

Edge of the Biscuit Fire burn
"Large woody material, both residing on the forest floor or as dead standing timber that will supply future downed wood, is critical in providing a healthy forest ecosystem," says the DEIS. "Removal of large woody material by salvage harvest could affect soil productivity."

The Forest Service also acknowledges the potential for the salvage logging to damage inventoried roadless areas (IRAs).

These roadless areas act as biological strongholds for populations of threatened and endangered species, the Service states in the Biscuit fire DEIS. These large, relatively unmanaged landscapes are important to biological diversity and the long term survival of many at risk species, they offer opportunities for recreation as other areas fall to development, and they serve as protection against the spread of non-native invasive plant species.

"In many instances these lands are intermingled with other land allocations and extend within two miles of the wildland-urban interface areas," the DEIS states. "Extensive salvage harvest and planting would detract from the natural, undisturbed character and could reduce the potential for wilderness designation."

That is an assessment with which the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance can agree.

The environmental organization is asking the Forest Service to avoid logging inside roadless areas and old-growth, also known as late successional reserves. It asks that the Service focus restoration on the lands within the Biscuit burn that were previously logged - about 20 percent of the area - and opposes plans to replace forests with clearcuts and plantations.

The public comment period for the Biscuit Fire DEIS is open through January 20. Public comments are welcome by email to: [email protected]

The Biscuit Fire Draft Environmental Impact Statement is online at: http://www.biscuitfire.com/proj_plan_index.htm



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