Bitterroot reforestation being delayed

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at
Tue Mar 11 12:45:43 EST 2003

>From The Sunday Oregonian, Mar. 9, 2003, p A17 (Oregon & The West)

Groups at odds about restoring Bitterroot forest blackened by fire
Environmentalists say the Forest Service is lagging, but the agency
says it is strapped for funds

By JIM ROBBINS, New York Times New Service
	MISSOULA, Mont. - In The summer of 2000, fires roared through the
tinder-dry Bitterroot National Forest, cloaking the valley in dense
smoke for weeks, blackening more than 300,000 acres and destroying 70
private homes in a valley that is a bedroom community for this
university town.
	Now the restoration of the forest has become the focus of a dispute
between environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service. A coalition
of local and national environmental groups say the agency is breaking
a promise to move the restoration along quickly. The Forest Service
has acknowledged the work has been delayed by budget shortages but has
insisted it will be completed in three to five years.
	An analysis by the environmental groups found that of 33,150 acres
planned for reforestation, only 4,000 acres have been planted, and
that watershed and road restoration is going even more slowly. The
Forest Service has completed just 13 of 500 miles of road upgrades to
accommodate increased timber hauling and prevent runoff from
substandard roads. The agency has obliterated just half a mile of the
45 miles of roads planned for elimination.
	"The Forest Service always says we have to trust them," said Robert
Ekey, who, as Northern Rockies regional director for the Wilderness
Society, was a party to negotiations last year that produced the
agreement on restoration. "This illustrates why we don't trust them.
They always break their promise."
	Environmentalists also say the agency's three- to five-year time
frame is too long. The longer the restoration work goes undone, some
scientists say, the greater the effects on forest ecosystems -
especially to two species of trout, the west slope cutthroat and the
federally protected bull trout. Heavy silt in streams can also
suffocate fish eggs and kill adult fish by blocking their gills.
	"Some of these roads are generating tremendous concentrations of
runoff," said Chris Frissell, a fisheries biologist and watershed
scientist with the Pacific Rivers Council, a conservation group. "I've
never seen streams muddier."
	The Forest Service said that it is under severe budget constraints,
largely as a result of last year's destructive wave of forest fires in
other states. The fires cost the agency $1.2 billion, more than four
times its annual firefighting budget. THe agency shifted $919 million
from other uses to fires, including $25.5 million for restoration on
the Bitterroot.
	Congress' 2003 spending bill included just $636 million in
reinbursement, so many restoration and research projects around the
country will get less than planned. Officials also warn that another
record fire season this year could mean even less money for such
	The roots of the Bitterroot dispute can be traced to the three-way
tug of war between environmentalists, the Forest Service and the
timber industry. Environmentalists say one reason the Bitterroot is so
carefully watched is that the forest has a long history of abuse,
including years of clear-cutting and extensive networks of logging
road that have compromised many forest ecosystems.
	The year after the fires here, Bitterroot forest officials proposed
to sell 41,000 acres of burned timber, equivalent to 10 years' worth
of logging. Calling the sale and associated restoration a "burned area
recovery plan," they said removing dead trees was important to head
off future fires.
	The environmentalists maintained that the burned area recovery plan
was just an old-fashioned timber-salvage sale with a new spin. The
Forest Service replied that forest health, including the removal of
roads to prevent stream sedimentation, was foremost.
	"It is imperative that we move forward with the project to help
restore the land and prevent further environmental degradation," Dale
Bosworth, the chief of the Forest Service, said last year.
	Timber companies said the longer the burned trees stood, the lower
their value. When the Forest Service tried to hasten logging by
shortcutting a public appeals process, environmental groups responded
by filing a lawsuit.
	A federal judge rules in the environmentalists' favor, forcing the
two sides to talk. Last year Bosworth and Mark Rey, an undersecretary
of agriculture who is a former timber lobbyist, agreed to about 14,000
acres of timber cutting, down from the Forest Service's proposal of
41,000 acres.
	Frissell, of the Pacific Rivers Council, says the logging has
generally had minimal effect on streams. But Larry Campbell, a
spokesman for another environmental group, Friends of the Bitterroot,
said the salvage logging now taking place had cut far too many big
trees, which the Forest Service said it would leave.
	"Ecologically they are the most valuable," Campbell said. "The only
moisture available in the burned forest is inside these nurse logs" -
the logs in which new trees an other plants establish themselves.
	Grasses have come back after the fire, but vast swaths of blackened
trees that look like burned matches are still the most dominant
feature of the forest.
	The Forest Service acknowledged last month that it had accidentally
allowed the cutting of 10 large trees that were important to shading a
creek in the burned area.

Comment from poster: This seems to be the new mantra of the Bush
administration: cut everything that has some sort of economic value,
then moan because there is no money to reforest. For more on this
subject check out Forest Thinning also posted to this NG today.

Daniel B. Wheeler

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