U.S. Loses Money on Oregon Salvage Logging

WASHINGTON, DC, October 5, 2006 (ENS) - Selling timber salvaged after a massive 2002 Oregon wildfire cost the federal government nearly $2 million, according a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report largely rejected claims by the Bush administration that lawsuits filed by environmental groups increased the cost of the bimer sales, putting much of the blame on the administration for its decision to dramatically increase logging in areas affected by the fire.

The report by congressional investigators also cited staffing cuts at the U.S. Forest Service and the complexity of federal environmental laws for delays and increased costs.

The 2002 Biscuit fire ravaged some 500,000 acres in southwest Oregon and California much of it in the Siskiyou National Forest. The fire started on July 13, 2002, as the result of a widespread lightning event and lasted more nearly two months.

The Bush administration's plan to recover the areas burned by the fire called for logging of some 370 million board feet, one of the largest proposed timber sales in U.S. history.

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The massive Biscuit fire resparked a debate about what to do with trees charred by wildfire. (Photo courtesy USDA)

The administration estimated the salvage logging sales would generate some $19.6 million for restoration, 6,900 local jobs and $240 million in regional activity.

As of December 2006, the Forest Service had completed 12 salvage sales, the GAO said, resulting in harvests of 67 million board feet. The sales generated $8.8 million in receipts for the federal government, but cost $10.7 million, the report found.

The GAO also cast doubt on the progress of other parts of the recovery plan, such as wildlife habitat rehabilitation, fire protection, scientific monitoring and a planned adaptive management study.

"It remains to be seen how much of the other recovery work will be accomplished given the lack of specific funding and schedules," the GAO concluded.

The study was requested by Democratic Senators Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Ron Wyden of Oregon. Bingaman said the report shows that the salvage effort "appears to be one of many instances where the Forest Service promised restoration and fuels reduction in conjunction with timber sales, did the logging at a cost of millions of tax dollars, and still has not started most of the restoration and other work."

"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 added.

The study comes as the Bush administration is pushing Congress to approve legislation that relaxes environmental laws in order to accelerate salvage logging.

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Many scientists contend salvage logging can have advers impacts on the enviroment. (Photo courtesy CIRES)

The bill, sponsored by Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, passed the House in May. It gives the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management the authority to exempt salvage logging plans from federal environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

On Tuesday, speaking in Los Angeles, President Bush told reporters that "Congress needs to pass further law that will enable us to restore forests once they've been burned."

Walden, in a speech Wednesday, urged the Senate to pass his bill.

"It's time to stop fiddling, change the law, free our foresters to respond like all other non-federal foresters can, and remove the burned dead trees while they have value," Walden said.

The nation's forests are in desperate need of increased logging to limit potential fire damage, said Walden, who called the situation the "Katrina of our forests."

But there is considerable debate about environmental benefits of salvage projects, as many scientists conclude burned areas are best left alone to regenerate naturally.

Research published in January in the journal "Science" found salvage logging after the Biscuit Fire reduced regeneration of new trees by 70 percent and increased the risk of future wildfires.

Randi Spivak, executive director for American Lands Alliance, said the GAO's Study confirms "that logging after fires is a lose-lose proposition."