Administration approves controversial timber salvage plan

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Timber salvage plan approved.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration approved a controversial plan to salvage dead and dying trees from the Bitterroot National Forest, blistered in the summer wildfires of 2000.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey signed the decision Sunday, with U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. Aides to Rey said the plan took effect Monday.

Rey’s signature shields the timber plan from a months-long administrative appeals process granted by Congress in 1992, but in a telephone interview he defended the move as legal.

“I fundamentally disagree that we are going around the appeals process,” Rey said. “We are using mechanisms included in the appeals process, as they have been used before, in what I view to be a rare circumstance where that’s justified.”

Now, instead of making their case directly to other Forest Service supervisors, critics of the plan must file a lawsuit if they wish to press for changes

Opponents of the Bitterroot National Forest plan include conservationists and environmental groups, some of whom said Monday they intend to move quickly to challenge the Forest Service in court.

In a written statement, Rey said immediately starting work on the Forest Service’s plan to restore the Bitterroot National Forest posed little risk to the health of the forest’s ecosystem.

Last Friday, Rey had said workers were prepared to begin as soon as the record was signed.

Citing threats of litigation from environmental groups, Bosworth had said earlier that he saw little need for the internal appeal.

“That’s the issue we’re prepared to go to court over, because we think the right to an administrative appeal is really a fundamental right,” said Doug Honnold, a Bozeman lawyer who works for Earthjustice, a legal defense fund.

“Our response is that Congress has already told the Forest Service, in no uncertain terms, that they cannot take that approach, that the appeal is mandatory,” Honnold said.

Jennifer Ferenstein, president of the Montana chapter of the Sierra Club, said she is disappointed by Rey’s decision, but not surprised. She cited Rey’s former position as a timber lobbyist. President Bush appointed him to his current post overseeing the Forest Service.

Rey, Bosworth and others described the plan for the Bitterroot National Forest as a restoration effort because it includes measures such as planting trees, closing some forest roads and restoring streambeds.

Conservationists say the “restoration” label masks the plan’s greater purpose: to cull 181 million board feet of lumber over three years from more than 46,000 acres of charred ponderosa pine trees.

The timber sale does represent a significant increase over previous timber sales from the Bitterroot, where 83 million board feet of timber were harvested from 1990 to 1999.

Fires during the summer of 2000 consumed more than 307,000 acres of the Bitterroot National Forest, a sprawling 1.6 million-acre area considered one of the largest stretches of American wilderness outside of Alaska.

The Forest Service said its logging plan will reduce the number of dead or dying trees that could fuel fires.

Conservationists fear logging the burned forest will create increase sediment in streams that are home to endangered fish, such as the bull trout.
 

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