Court says dead trees will stay put

Larry Harrell lhfotoware at
Fri Feb 13 09:00:10 EST 2004

February 11, 2004  The Eureka Reporter

Ninth Circuit Torches Sensible Fire Prevention

by Emma T. Suárez

Two years ago, the devastating Star Fire swept through the Eldorado
and Tahoe National Forests in Northern California. Over a harrowing 23
days, flames consumed 17,000 acres of habitat for the California
spotted owl. Now some federal judges have stepped forward – to
finish off what the fire didn't destroy.

In December, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a
forest recovery plan designed to head off the next out-of-control
blaze by clearing trees that were scorched in the last one.

The U.S. Forest Service plan had given the go-ahead for private
logging of charred timber across just more than 1,700 -- or roughly 10
percent -- of the blackened acres. The reason: Forest managers don't
want to be confronted with "Star Fire – the Sequel."

"Our concern in general (is that), as dead trees fall haphazardly
across the forest, there will be a campfire effect, (and) as brush and
new growth comes up underneath, a fire that starts in that fuel bed on
the forest floor will create a large fire," Forest Service spokesman
Matt Mathes told the Associated Press.

But there's a species of self-described environmentalists who act as
if they never met a forest fire they didn't like, and one such group
sued to stop the tree-clearing.

Although a federal district judge sided with the Forest Service, the
enviros got their way before the Ninth Circuit – in a ruling
that puts common sense to the torch.

The judge writing for the 2-1 majority cited, among other issues, the
continued "presence of owls" in the area as a possible reason to bar

But how does it help owls or any other species if the forest, or
what's left of it, is allowed to remain a tinderbox? Burned trees
serve as wildfire fuel, and wildfires kill owls, scorch their habitat
and incinerate the small rodents that owls love to eat.

On the other hand, quick removal of dead trees and reforestation of
the area increases the species' chances of long-term survival.

Reforestation is at the heart of the plan that the court panned. A
number of "salvage" timber sales would have been permitted, with
proceeds going for rehabilitation of seared hillsides. These sales are
called "salvage" because they literally "save" dead or dying trees by
putting them to use as lumber for homes.

But this only works if the trees are removed before decaying beyond
any commercial value – so the appellate court's decree, if not
soon overturned, could send the recovery plan up in smoke.

The most-telling phrase in the court's decision came from the
dissenter, Judge Richard Clifton. He said the majority "fails to
explain why preservation of a burned-out forest and postponement of
rehabilitation plans serves the public interest."

Indeed. The decision is a reminder why Congress was wise to enact
President Bush's Healthy Forests Restoration Act recently.

Healthy Forests is premised on the belief that the public interest is
not served when essential forest health projects are subjected to
never-ending litigation.

In future assessment of projects to thin forests and reduce buildup of
dead wood, courts will be required to consider the long-term risks
that delay would pose for communities and the environment.

The new law is a recognition that taxpayers and nature-lovers are
tired of seeing the nation's natural resources put in danger because
myopic environmentalists prefer to stop the cutting of one tree even
if it means letting whole forests burn.

Unfortunately, Healthy Forests came too late to protect the Star Fire
restoration plan from agenda-driven legal attack. But the full Ninth
Circuit can and should review the panel's wrongheaded ruling, which
could also affect other pending restoration projects put in place
before Healthy Forests became law.

And other courts considering similar efforts by green groups to
smother fire-prevention projects should weigh carefully the risks to
our environment and communities of letting these radicals win.

Comment by poster: Even though the rhetoric is pretty thick, the gist
of this writer point comes across. Anyone care to promote the merits
of just letting massive amounts of fuels sit there? Are spotted owls
impacted by the removal of some of the burned trees? Did you know that
a portion of the monies from the sale goes back into restoration of
those lands? Did you know that schools and county road departments get
funds generated from selling dead trees?

Larry,   eco-forester

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