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Forests Under Fire

Despite the spin, Bush has no plans for healthy forests

Jeff Shaw

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While President George W. Bush was on the West Coast stumping for environmental votes in August, his forest policy was creating more giant stumps. Besides Bush’s high-profile and ironically named “Healthy Forests Initiative,” the administration’s stealthier pro-logging policies are on the verge of crippling key safeguards for Pacific Northwest old growth.

“The president is taking us back in time to the days of the timber wars,” says Jasmine Minbashian of the Northwest Old Growth Campaign. “Never have our forests and salmon been in greater danger.”

The administration is proposing to dismantle even the meager protections afforded by the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan—with potentially devastating impacts to the region’s most fertile repositories of biodiversity.

That plan sets aside 6.9 million acres of national forests west of the Cascade Mountains but allows commercial logging in another 4.6 million acres—including 1.1 million acres containing old growth. This leaves about 14 percent of the ancient trees on federal land vulnerable to industry chainsaws.

The Bush administration is quietly undermining essential forest plan regulations aimed at protecting threatened species and dwindling stands of ancient trees. Two prime examples:

Currently, timber sales must be surveyed for their impact on endangered animals that depend on the older forests. The Bush administration is pushing to overturn this requirement.

Before agencies like the U.S. Forest Service approve a timber sale, they are required to demonstrate that the sale won’t harm nearby streams or endangered salmon runs. Under Bush’s proposals, this would no longer be a consideration.

These proposed amendments to the Northwest Forest Plan could come out as early as November in a new environmental impact statement—which bypasses congressional debate. If adopted, timber sales previously declared illegal because of risks to endangered species could reemerge; logging in already sold sensitive areas also would be made easier, quicker and more ecologically harmful.

Because these measures can be adopted through arcane procedures and not a formal vote, they have been mostly hidden from the public. Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative, however, has openly touted lifting environmental regulations as a solution to forest fires. Un-logged forests, the spin goes, provide “fuel” for a wildfire, and logging provides important “fuel reduction.”

This can be true in some cases for some kinds of forests, but never for old growth. Far from constituting fuel for blazes, the huge trees are the most fire-resistant part of a forest. When mature trees are logged, though, underbrush springs up, increasing an ecosystem’s vulnerability to catastrophic wildfires.

“Logging old growth to stop fires is absurd and backwards,” says Josh Laughlin, campaign coordinator with the nonprofit Cascadia Wildlands Project. “We support authentic fuel reduction, but we stand in the way of ancient forest logging schemes masquerading as fuel reduction.”

Why are the so-called “Healthy Forests” policies a masquerade? The wholesale rollback the policies represent—limiting judicial appeals, curtailing environmental studies, bulldozing new roads into wild areas—would make sawing down old growth just as easy as removing the bone-dry underbrush that feeds fires. Harvesting larger old growth trees, though, brings in dramatically more revenue than removing dead saplings. The talk of fuel reduction, many say, provides an excuse for the timber industry to log the profitable giants.

While a July forest fire was raging three miles from the Willamette National Forest’s “Clark” timber sale, loggers weren’t “reducing fuel” in the Clark sale or surrounding areas—they were toppling old growth 10 miles away at a timber sale called “Straw Devil.”

The Straw Devil ecosystem represents what is at stake. When Straw Devil was briefly opened to cutting in late July, protesters occupied trees there, placing their bodies in harm’s way to prevent logging of 400-year-old giant cedar and Douglas fir trees. “I watched 4- and 5-foot wide ancient trees coming down,” says Laughlin.

Without large firs and cedars, salmon and trout streams lose shade, raising water temperature beyond the threshold fish can tolerate. Felling the trees removes homes for species like the red tree vole, a rodent that only lives under old-growth canopies in Oregon and northern California. If the vole goes, so does a primary food source for the northern spotted owl. The end result could be extinction for signature Pacific Northwest species.

The Straw Devil site contains a crucial vole habitat, a fact documented by activists who painstakingly searched the area for nests. Based on these surveys, a federal judge has temporarily halted timber harvesting at Straw Devil—but the threat to it and other sites is still very real.

And if the Bush administration has its way, no surveys like those will happen again.

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