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The Planet
Victory

Fear and Logging in Tahoe
By Caroline Kraus

When the Forest Service claimed that its Red Star Timber Sale in a roadless area of the Tahoe National Forest would reduce the risk of fire through “forest thinning,” its actual plan, says Sierra Club attorney Aaron Isherwood, called for cutting the largest trees and leaving behind large amounts of highly combustible “slash” debris, such as branches, brush, and tree tops.

Sounds like creating a fire hazard, not reducing one, doesn’t it? So said the Sierra Club, John Muir Project, and other environmental groups when they sued the Forest Service to stop the Red Star sale back in 2002. And so agreed the Bush-appointed Judge Morris England, who issued a preliminary injunction against the sale on August 20, ruling that the logging project was illegal.

In the end, Forest Service attorneys admitted that they planned to log large diameter trees in the Duncan Canyon area, and leave 85 tons per acre of flammable debris behind. Judge England pointed out that 85 tons was more than double the amount of slash that the agency’s own scientific studies said would cause an extreme fire hazard. And leaving such large quantities of slash, he said, “could lead to a situation that would create bonfire-style combustion across the landscape.”
Which begs the question, “Why?” The Red Star case points to a disturbing answer, to a pattern within the Bush administration of exploiting legitimate fears of fire in communities near forests in order to gain access to protected forests.

“Their strategy is to scare the hell out of everybody,” Isherwood says. “They tell everyone that fires will take their homes without logging, but instead of removing brush and small trees near communities at risk, they are logging ancient forests in remote parts of the backcountry to reward their campaign-contributing friends in the timber industry.”

The Red Star case illustrates just how tight those ties to the timber industry are, influencing judgment in the Bush administration to the point of putting people in harm’s way. “It’s unconscionable,” says Isherwood. “The Bush administration is claiming to help communities even as it knowingly puts people at risk.”

So Judge England’s decision has environmentalists cheering, but not only because the injunction has stopped the Red Star project. His ruling has also created an important precedent as the first decision to stop a logging project that violated the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

The Roadless Rule was issued in January 2001 to protect 58.5 million acres of national forest land from commercial logging and road-building. That still leaves two-thirds of America’s national forests open to logging and other industries, but on July 12, the Bush administration announced a proposal to repeal the Roadless Rule, in effect putting the last third of the nation’s wild forests at risk. (Read more about the Roadless Rule status here).

Ironically, Duncan Canyon has already lost thousands of acres of forest as a result of the Star Fire in 2001—a fire that started because slash was left behind by a commercial logging operation.


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