Ruling protects dead Bitterroot trees
In a written ruling, Chief Judge Michael Hogan of Oregon's U.S. District Court denied a Forest Service request to cut burned, dead trees within the boundaries of two salvage-timber sales - the Coal Little Blue and Skalkaho.
Both projects were intended to remove trees killed by wildfires during the summer of 2000, when more than 300,000 acres of the Bitterroot National Forest burned.
The settlement agreement included a restriction against cutting any trees over 22 inches in diameter "without prior agreement of the plaintiffs" - meaning, without approval of the environmental groups that originally sued to stop the Bitterroot salvage sales.
Bitterroot forest officials believed the prohibition only applied to green - living - trees, not to those killed by the wildfires, Supervisor Dave Bull said Thursday.
In changing the Skalkaho and Coal Little Blue timber sales to reflect the condition of those stands - where virtually all of the trees are now dead, the Bitterroot forest wanted to remove all but a few of the trees, in hopes of reducing the fire danger in years to come, Bull said.
"If we make an investment in reforestation, we don't want to lose it 20 or 30 years from now, when all those trees are lying on the ground and at great risk of burning," he said. "That's why we felt we needed to harvest trees from all class sizes."
But the environmentalists said no, that the agreement applied to all trees over 22 inches in diameter, living or dead. Don't cut the trees, they said.
As provided for in the settlement, the disagreement went to Hogan for resolution. Should the Forest Service be able to cut the 199 dead trees in those two timber sales that are over 22 inches in diameter?
Hogan's ruling: No. The Forest Service's motion was denied, without explanation.
"We were kind of disappointed," Bull said. "We felt this was included in the original settlement."
The bigger trees will be left untouched as the sales are cut by Walker Logging, the forest supervisor said, then the Forest Service will determine whether the area should be reforested or left to regenerate naturally.
"We'll do an assessment with our fire people and our reforestation people," Bull said, "and determine whether we did get an adequate amount of fuel reduction so the risk of fire in the future is something we can live with. We'll take another look."
Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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