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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2006
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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: Up in Smoke
Oregon's Biscuit fire and the hoax of salvage logging
By Carl Pope

Carl Pope In the course of three days in July 2002, a Jovian storm rained down 12,000 lightning strikes on southwestern Oregon, igniting numerous forest fires. The largest of these, dubbed the Biscuit fire, burned until September 5, despite the $153 million the U.S. Forest Service spent trying to suppress it. It charred more than half a million acres, three-quarters of them in wilderness or roadless areas.

The Biscuit fire was still smoldering on August 22 when President Bush flew to Portland and used it as the pretext for his "Healthy Forests" initiative. The plan encouraged massive "thinning" of backcountry forests, ostensibly to prevent fires, and widespread "salvage logging" of partially burned trees in their wake. Its practical effect was to divert Forest Service funds from community fire protection to projects that benefit the timber industry. And its apotheosis was the Biscuit salvage-logging sale.

Initially, Forest Service planners sketched a Biscuit cut they hoped would be a model of environmentally responsible postfire logging. Richard Fairbanks, the chief timber-sale planner on the project, told the Eugene Weekly his team concluded that up to 100 million board feet could be removed, mostly from areas near roads or already involved in plantation forestry. But then local politicians commissioned a report from Oregon State University forest-engineering professor John Sessions that claimed 2 billion board feet could be taken, largely through helicopter logging. (After the report came out, the grateful wife of the founder of Columbia Helicopters gave $1 million to OSU's College of Forestry.)

Based on the Sessions report, the regional Forest Service office demanded a cut of a billion board feet. Fairbanks demurred, saying that developing such a big sale would take so long that an entire logging season would be lost, and the burned trees would lose much of their value. His superiors didn't care, he was told. The real point, says Fairbanks, was to get local pro-timber politicians reelected: "It wasn't about volume; it wasn't about forest restoration; it wasn't about economics. It was about votes and the impression that the environmentalists were holding up the logging and being wasteful. They thought there was political advantage to be gained by ramping up the stakes on Biscuit."

When it became apparent that a billion-board-foot cut wasn't feasible, the Forest Service scaled back to 372 million board feet--still the largest timber sale in modern history. But the controversy was far from over. Salvage logging, and subsequent replanting, is being sold to the public as the best way to restore burned forests. The notion underlies Bush's "Healthy Forests" plan, the Biscuit timber sale, and legislation proposed by Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.) that would put postfire logging projects on a fast track. All were called into question by a study, published in the January issue of Science, by OSU grad student Daniel Donato, who demonstrated that salvage logging actually slows forest recovery (partly by killing naturally regenerating seedlings) and increases the danger of fire (by leaving behind large amounts of woody debris). As the Washington Post reported, "The study is consistent with research findings from around the world that have documented how salvage logging can strip burned forests of the biological diversity that fire and natural recovery help protect."

Donato's paper appeared in Science despite the efforts of a group of OSU forestry professors to suppress it, a move the journal's editor called attempted censorship. Hal Salwasser, the forestry school's dean, strongly criticized his own grad student's report. In addition, the Bureau of Land Management suspended funding for Donato's research, citing contract provisions that required the BLM to "approve" publication of scientific results. Donato was even summoned before a congressional committee chaired by Walden, where he was publicly excoriated for his inconvenient findings.

Happily, scientific research does not stand or fall based on the rage of politicians or scorn of compromised academics. It can only be challenged by more science--more experimentation, more research, and deeper understanding. This explains the Bush administration's unrelenting hostility to the scientific enterprise: It cannot be counted on to provide cover for those who would shortsightedly loot the natural world.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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