Salvage Loggers Cut Living Trees in Bitterroot

By Cat Lazaroff

MISSOULA, Montana, March 6, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service has admitted that loggers "accidentally" felled at least six living old growth ponderosa pines in the Bitterroot National Forest, as part of the so called Burned Area Recovery Project. The agency has since placed a federal closure order on the entire sale, barring the public from access to the site.


A downed ponderosa pine in the Bitterroot (All photos courtesy Wild Rockies Earth First!)
On Friday, the Forest Service admitted that at least a half dozen green ponderosa pines had been cut down with one of the areas where loggers are authorized to fell dead and damaged trees injured during massive wildfires in 2000.

Environmental groups documented the downed trees with photographs and video, and confronted the Forest Service about this violation of a settlement reached between the agency and conservation groups over the Bitterroot National Forest's Burned Area Recovery Plan.

The groups sued to halt the Forest Service's original plan to restore 44,000 acres that burned in the 2000 fire season. That plan would have logged burned timber throughout the burned area, later closing logging roads and planting new trees.

On February 8, the Forest Service agreed to remove 27,000 acres of roadless old growth forest and sensitive fish habitat from the planned logging project. The settlement allows logging on about 14,770 acres scattered over 19 parcels.


A clearcut on unit 49 of the Bear timbersale
The settlement also barred the taking of undamaged, living trees such as those cut down by loggers last week, just two weeks into the project.

"The trees were anywhere from 150 to 300 years old," said Matthew Koehler, a spokesperson for the Native Forest Network. "They survived the wildfires of 2000, but did not survive the greed of the industry or the incompetence of the Forest service."

The Forest Service says the trees were cut by mistake, and that steps are being taken to ensure that the error is not repeated.

But on Saturday, the Forest Service announced a federal closure order barring public access to the areas around the Bear timber sale and the Roan-Burke timber sale - the two timber sales that have been most heavily monitored by activists, and the areas where the living ponderosa pines were cut down.

If members of the public violate the closure order, they risk a fine of "no more than $5,000 for an individual or$10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment for not more than six months or both."


A pile of trees cut down on the Elk Point Two timber sale
Koehler says the closure is intended to keep the public from learning about additional violations of the Bitterroot settlement.

"Under the Bush administration, the Forest Service has started a pattern of shutting the public out whenever the going gets tough," Koehler said. "The people monitoring the Bitterroot sales were getting hassled by law enforcement officials, and now they're being kept out completely."

Deputy forest supervisor Leslie "Spike" Thompson said the closures are intended to protect the public. This week, the loggers will begin using helicopters to remove downed trees, and the public could be struck by falling debris, Thompson said.

"We're not trying to hide anything," said Thompson. "But we feel a responsibility to protect the public in situations where a lot of hazards exist."

After the helicopter transports are complete, conservation groups and other members of the public will be allowed access again, he added.

Thompson also said the loggers who cut down the six live ponderosa pines made an "honest mistake." The loggers are supposed to choose not only dead trees but also trees that were so damaged by the fires that they will eventually die, Thompson explained, and in this case they overestimated the damage the pines had sustained.


An old growth ponderosa pine cut as part of the so called salvage logging project
The living pines which the loggers cut by mistake will be "left on the ground," Thompson said, "because we want to ensure people that if you do things wrong, you won't profit from it."

But Koehler says the loggers are already profiting from a mistake.

"You do not restore a forest by cutting it down. You simply cannot restore a forest through logging," Koehler said. "Post fire salvage logging is going to cause tremendous degradation to the region's soil and wildlife habitat, and disrupt the natural recovery process that has been underway for nearly two years."