Dead Wood

The sudden departure late last month of U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, a Clinton-era holdover, evoked a sigh of relief in parts of the rural West where his anti-logging policies have had the most devastating economic impacts. But it was a cautious sigh. In spite of Dombeck's protest resignation — in which he took a parting shot at “deskbound” souls who “equate a National Forest solely to board feet or barrels of oil” — timber towns and businesses know that they are far from out of the woods, and are warily watching for signs that Dombeck's green-leaning tenure indelibly altered an agency that is gatekeeper to nearly 200 million acres of public land. While the Clinton administration's “roadless initiative” presents a real long-term threat to the Western timber industry, many see an important first test of the new administration's forestry policies in a formerly obscure issue brought to a head by last summer's long hot summer: whether the Forest Service will roll back impediments to the timely salvage of millions of dead trees burned in last year's wildfires. Tree cutting on national forests underwent a dramatic decrease during the Clinton-Dombeck years, devastating timber-dependent communities and contributing to a forest fuels buildup culminating in those big burns. The big question in their aftermath now becomes: Does the service's newfound phobia of felling living trees also apply to dead ones, preventing their timely salvage before time, moisture, mold, and insects lay them all to waste? The work offers a lifeline to timber communities and companies on the brink of extinction. It could generate revenues for other recovery projects in badly burned forests, and reduce the chance that partially burned forests will fuel a new round of wildfires this year. But salvage efforts have been stalled by the agency's enslavement to red tape and Dombeck's flower power sensibilities, critics say. They've also been opposed by anti-logging groups, who seem to believe that dead trees are as huggable as live ones. So while the Forest Service fiddles and greens plot impediments to salvage sales, billions of board feet of usable wood will begin rotting in place this spring. Ever day that salvage is delayed will perpetuate what some see as an unconscionable waste of public resources. In South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest, for instance, Dombeck severely restricted the salvaging of wood burned in last summer's Jasper Fire, reportedly allowing as much as 52 million board feet to go to waste. Forest Supervisor John Twiss asked Washington for an emergency exemption from the usual harvest appeals process to speed salvage along, but Dombeck in typical fashion granted only a partial exemption, allowing limited cutting only on parcels approved for harvest before the fires. “This does not allow for any timely harvest for any of the trees outside the [existing] sales units,” one analyst for the Black Hills Forest Resource Association told an area newspaper. And the amount of wood likely to be saved will still be “minimal,” she added, “due to bureaucratic processes and delays, which by the time they are completed, will mean that the additional fire-burned timber will be [unmarketable].”Another salvage sale on a section of New Mexico's Gila National Forest has been blocked, and could be permanently reversed, due to procedural objections from environmental groups who say they've been excluded from the process. They oppose salvage sales because dead trees make good habitat for animals and harvesting them disturbs the ground, hastening erosion, and so have pledged to fight at least half a dozen other proposed salvage sales in the Southwest. “Burned forests are much more than a commodity,” a spokesman for one group recently said. “Fires create important habitat for a wide array of wildlife, especially our imperiled songbirds.” Based on the merits or not, such appeals and suits will effectively kill many salvage sales because delay leads to decay, and decay quickly makes burned trees unusable for most purposes. A salvage sale's relatively narrow window of opportunity, combined with anticipated opposition from environmentalists, led New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest to forego salvage projects on 48,000 acres burned by last year's Cierro Grand fire, according to one agency insider. A spot survey of national forests stricken by fire last year indicates that few will likely see salvage projects go forward this summer, if at all, due not only to impediments thrown up by greens, inside the agency and out, but to the gumminess of the decision-making process under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. The law lays out a lengthy, laborious, multi-layered process that must be followed before even trivial land management actions are taken. And agency insiders say it is one big reason why, nearly a year after some fires occurred, many national forests may still be months away from a decision on whether to salvage or not to salvage.An effort was made in the service several years ago to streamline the NEPA process, by waiving certain provisions in some clearly defined circumstances, including on small scale salvage sales. But the streamlined procedures were reversed by headquarters after a single court challenge from environmentalists, according to one veteran Forest Service official, allowing a decision made by one judge, based on one narrow set of circumstances, to nullify what some saw as a sensible reform. The accreted weight of hundreds of lawsuits and court cases, most of them hair-splitting disputes over NEPA procedures, may be the single greatest obstacle to instilling flexibility and common sense into the process, this insider says. But when speed and flexibility is of the essence, as it is in the case of salvaging a perishable commodity like rotting trees, NEPA can be a backbreaker. Perhaps no one knows that more than Montana mill owner Jim Hurst, who, because of restricted access to U.S. forests, has been keeping his outfit going in recent years by hauling logs in from Alberta, Canada. Hurst has had to lay off 40 percent of his people since last fall, and today is down to just 65 employees, while awaiting word on whether the service will permit the harvest of burned logs just 7 miles from the mill. At the rate things are moving, Hurst says he probably won't be able to start cutting the dead wood until next fall. That's assuming that he wins the bid. And that's assuming he's still in business.The recent closure by Boise Cascade of its last two facilities in Idaho, resulting in the loss of 375 jobs, is also being blamed on federal forest policy during the Clinton years, its stingy timber salvage procedures included. “The cause of these closures is very clear; it's the decline of available timber on federal lands,” a company official said when announcing the closures, pointing to a 90 percent reduction in the company's access to public forests in the last five years. Nationally, timber cutting on national forests has fallen from about 12 billion board feet per year in 1989 to just about 2 billion board feet this year. Idaho has seen the closure of 33 sawmills since 1989, and the number of timber jobs fall from 15,596 in 1994 to 12,374 last year. “The latest closures are devastating,” according to one astute industry watcher, “because in Latin, 'Boise-Cascade' translates into 'Idaho.'” Adds Idaho Sen. Larry Craig: “There really is no excuse for Cascade to go down, except for the fact its men and women have been locked out of the woods of Idaho.”In an ironic twist, loss of the two Idaho mills may actually hamper belated federal efforts to thin over-fueled, fire-prone national forests, and restore them to health before they too burn. “The absence of a strong timber industry in Idaho will make reaching [these goals] harder and more expensive,” one regional Forest Service official said in the wake of the Idaho closings. Indeed, one factor reportedly complicating a potential salvage sale along the Arizona-Utah border is the fact that there's no longer a local timber industry left to handle the job. If a sale goes forward, the bigger logs will have to be hauled hundreds of miles away to be processed, because area mills have been shuttered as a result of Forest Service restrictions. A similar situation can be found in neighboring New Mexico, where only one major mill remains in operation after 17 have closed. That lone mill is busy today processing burnt logs; but none, alas, from public lands. Those logs are instead being salvaged from private land and Indian Reservations, where fewer bureaucratic hoops need jumping through, greens hold no trump cards, and economic and environmental needs are more reasonably balanced.So frustrated have some in New Mexico become with what they see as irresponsible federal forest policy, meanwhile, that Gov. Gary Johnson on March 13 signed a bill invoking the state's emergency police powers to declare burnt and fire-prone national forests disaster areas, granting counties authority to intervene where USFS policies and practices have created a public hazard. This action, which some observers in the West see as potentially precedent-setting, was necessary, according to the bill, because “the federal government has been reluctant to act in clearing and thinning forests and in removing or logging the fire-damaged trees,” which “could result in future fires, causing additional severe economic harm to areas within this state.”According to one source with access to internal USFS communications, agency lawyers are consulting with the U.S. Department of Justice about the possibility of a legal challenge to New Mexico's move, and its regional office has no plans to yield to the state — setting up what could in coming months become an interesting test of wills. Whether a Forest Service turnaround comes fast enough — if it comes at all — is to some a matter of economic life and death. “There's a tremendous sense of urgency out here, because businesses are starting to close and people are moving away,” Jim Hurst says from Eureka, Montana, echoing anxieties being heard elsewhere as this make-or-break summer approaches. “That urgency may be felt by Forest Service people here in the local ranger station, but with every layer above that it diminishes, and by the time you get to the Washington office it's non-existent.”