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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Bitterroot Logging

Air Date: Week of

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After the forest fires of 2000, the US Forest Service's plan for Montana's Bitterroot National Forest calls for salvage logging on 46,000 acres. And they've cut off the possibility for public appeals by sending the plan straight to the Agriculture Department. Host Steve Curwood talks with Missoulian reporter Sherry Devlin about this controversial decision.


CURWOOD: Wild fires roared through Montana's Bitterroot Valley during the summer of 2000. More than 355,000 acres burned, most of it national forest land. Timber companies are anxious to cut the burned timber before it's spoiled, for commercial use, but some activists oppose this so-called salvage logging. The U.S. Forest Service has streamlined the approval process for its management plan, which includes logging on 46,000 burnt acres. The head of the Forest Service sent the plan straight to a top Agricultural Department official for ratification, bypassing the usual opportunities for public appeals.

Sherry Devlin has been covering the ensuing controversy for the Missoula newspaper. Sherry, how has the way this Forest Service plan is proceeding different from usual?

DEVLIN: Well, you know, they started out with the normal process, and started talking with people even as the fires were still burning. But almost from the start, the discussion in this case was pretty intense, and it's continued that way throughout the past year. The Forest Service wrote an environmental impact statement on the burned area. They held dozens and dozens of public meetings. They collected more than 4,000 written comments. And everyone expected the forest supervisor to announce his final decision late last month. Instead, the chief of the forest service asked the agricultural under-secretary, Mark Rey, to sign the decision. And that's what's different here. By having Mark Rey sign the decision, there is no one higher to whom the critics can appeal the decision, at least administratively.

CURWOOD: Why did the Forest Service decide to bypass all these possibilities for appeal?

DEVLIN: Environmental group and loggers both have said that they might sue over these decisions. The loggers now seem to be more inclined to go along with the decision. The environmentalists have said they are probably going to be going to court.

So the Forest Service says that, as long as this is ending up in court eventually anyway, they ought to just cut to that action. They're also worried about getting out into the woods while the timber is still valuable, before it's attacked by bark beetles, which carry a blue stain on their legs and would decrease the commercial value of the wood. And they want to, kind of, bring down the tone of the debate in the community. Things have become increasingly hostile between these different groups, and the forest supervisor has said that he's concerned. He wants to get the community back talking with one another and back at work.

CURWOOD: You've talked to various forest conservation groups, Sherry. If this thing is likely to wind up in court anyway, why are they upset about getting to that stage sooner?

DEVLIN: Well, you know, they think that this decision is really arrogant on the part of the Forest Service. The local people want a chance to go through the administrative process and discuss their concerns with the local regional level and then, national level foresters. Also, lawsuits are expensive, they take time, they involve a lot more effort than the administrative appeal process. Environmentalists are also worried about the precedent that this sets; they're afraid that this is the start of a larger assault on the appeals process and on citizen access to forest decisions, on the national level.

CURWOOD: So, what happens if under-secretary Rey signs the decision shortly, as is expected?

DEVLIN: Fairly shortly, the Forest Service would expect to advertise these timber sales and to get loggers out in the woods working. They want people out there in January, at the latest, while the ground is frozen and while they're able to do the work with the least damage to the soil. Then, the other thing that probably will happen is that there will be lawsuits filed by environmentalists hoping to stop that work before it can begin.

CURWOOD: Sherry Devlin covers the environment for the Missoula newspaper in Montana. Thanks for filling us in on this issue, Sherry.

DEVLIN: Thank you.



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