Official: Burned timber no longer salvageable

The Missoulian

Oct. 7, 2003

MISSOULA MT– “Little to no” merchantable timber likely remains in several fire-salvage sales stopped by an environmental lawsuit earlier this year, a Kootenai National Forest official said.

Another summer of heat and drought probably dealt the final blow to thousands of board feet of timber damaged by wildfires during the summer of 2000, said Tom Maffei, timber sale contracting officer for the Kootenai forest.

Twelve of 16 active timber sales and six of 26 planned sales stopped by a court order last July were intended to salvage burned trees.

Still, Maffei said language attached to the Interior Appropriations Bill by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., “would be helpful” in renewing work on the green timber sales and in completing restoration work in the burned areas.

“We’ve lost a major portion of our timber sale program,” Maffei said. “A lot of contractors who had sales under contract are sitting.”

At least one sawmill – Owens and Hurst Lumber Co. in Eureka – has turned to logs salvaged from forests burned by wildfires in Canada this past summer.

“It’s pitiful,” said Jim Hurst, the mill’s co-owner. “Our mill is at about one-third capacity, and we’ve got Canadian truckers pulling into the yard with burned logs from Crow’s Nest Pass in British Columbia.”

“This whole thing is ridiculous,” Hurst said. “You go tell a farmer to leave his wheat crop in the field while you debate whether or not he should harvest it.”

Yes, the salvage sales are in publicly owned forests, “but the public is going to suffer,” he said. “The public will get no advantage if we don’t get in there.”

In July, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy stopped work on the sales, and chided the Kootenai for failing to follow its own standards for maintaining old-growth timber and monitoring wildlife species dependent on old trees.

The Burns rider would allow logging to resume, so long as the timber sales didn’t leave the Kootenai with less than its self-imposed minimum of 10 percent old growth forestwide.

Maffei said logging was actually completed on five of the timber sales before Molloy issued the stop-work order.

Now, however, those forests cannot be replanted because the order prohibits all cutting, including noncommercial slash that must be removed before new trees are planted.

“We can’t fell the unmerchantable trees and deal with the slash, and that’s created a ripple effect,” Maffei said. “If we can’t complete the slash work and the piling, then we can’t burn the sale areas, then we can’t plant them.”

If either the Kootenai is able to meet Molloy’s order or Burns is successful in gaining full congressional approval for his rider, Maffei said he will visit the sales with contractors and decide how best to proceed.

“On the salvage sales, we are basically a little over three years out from when that timber burned, and we’re headed into another winter,” he said. “If we were told today that we could resume work on those sales, I’m not sure we would touch any of them.

“The wood may have just deteriorated too much to make it economical at this point.”

The in-progress sales were under contract to Owens and Hurst, Plum Creek Timber Co., E.M. Logging of Eureka, Faust Inc. of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and Louisiana-Pacific Corp.

If there is not enough value left to warrant completing the salvage sales, the Forest Service will negotiate a cancellation of sale and pay the contractor any resulting damages, Maffei said.

Timber-sale contractors are not compensated for their lost profits, but are reimbursed for road construction or reconstruction work.

Already, Louisiana-Pacific has filed a claim for expenses incurred because of the judge’s ruling. Maffei has not yet decided on the request, so could not discuss it.

At the Ecology Center, the Missoula group that sued and stopped the work, conservation director Jeff Juel said his group never opposed legitimate forest restoration work.

If the Forest Service wants to clear slash and replant trees in some of the salvage units, it should make a motion to that effect in federal District Court.

“If the Forest Service came forth with an offer of real restoration, whether it was closing roads, taking care of slash or planting trees, we wouldn’t oppose that,” Juel said. “But the Forest Service hasn’t done that.

“They have concentrated their efforts on appealing the judge’s ruling, showing once again that their whole emphasis was on the logging.”

The Ecology Center never wanted the Kootenai forest to salvage the fire-killed trees, Juel added. “Burned trees are natural. Habitat created by fires is needed by some wildlife species.”

“A forest fire is a habitat-creation process that is entirely natural,” he said. “But the Forest Service reacts to fire as if it is a call to management, which turns into a call for logging and road building.”



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