Groups appeal Flagtail projects

A scenes from the Flagtail fire of 2002. The recovery project has been stalled by a lawsuit.

PAGE 1 PERSPECTIVES

The Flagtail recovery project - seven roadside salvage timber sales previously sold and a 15-million-board-foot sale scheduled for April 21 - has been appealed by a consortium of five environmental groups.

The recovery effort and salvage sales are in response to the 8,200-acre Flagtail Fire that burned south of John Day in July 2002. The plaintiffs, which include the League of Wilderness Defenders - Blue Mountain Diversity Project, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Klamath-Siskyou Wildland Center and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center - filed the suit in reaction to the issuance of the final Record of Decisions (ROD) for the Flagtail Projects on April 7 by Forest Supervisor Roger Williams. Part of the rehabilitation for the burned area called for the salvaging of dead and dying timber as a fuels reduction measure.

In addition to the ROD, Regional Forester Linda Goodman asked that Chief of the Forest Service Dale Bosworth grant the Flagtail Project's Emergency Determination Status to expedite harvest of the fire-killed timber because it is quickly losing economic value due to deterioration from insects and decay. Under this emergency status, timber sales can still be appealed, but, instead of going through a lengthy 105-day period of appeal review and resolution discussions, the appeal goes immediately to court if the appellant chooses.

With the issuance of the ROD, the roadside salvage sales that had been halted by Judge Ancer Haggerty in the winter 2002 can again be harvested. Currently D.R. Johnson Lumber Co. is harvesting the 2195 Roadside Salvage Sale, and they expect to have it completed by April 16. The main Flagtail Salvage sale is still expected to be auctioned on April 21; however, award of the sale to the successful bidder may be withheld until a decision from the court is issued should the appellants choose court as a final solution.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the Flagtail Fire Recovery Project is a two-volume document that measures nearly 3-inches thick and contains nearly 1,000 pages. It resembles a Webster's Dictionary more than a resource assessment, but that is the level of study that must be analyzed in today's "litigation-happy world" when undertaking such a large salvage project.

"We consider this analysis to be the state of the art in considering the environmental effects of this project," said Jennifer Harris, public affairs director on the Malheur National Forest. "The forest has presented this project to the public for comment,s and we have conducted extensive reviews of those comments and many of the suggestions are incorporated in the final decision."

Even with all of the planning, the plaintiffs argue that the Forest Service failed to analyze the cumulativeeffects of the project as required by NEPA, failed to disclose differing scientific information counseling against the activities proposed by the agency, failed to comply with the Eastside Screens, failed to ensure that no green trees over 21-inches diameter at breast height (dbh) were harvested, and argue that the Forest Service's use of the emergency determination violates NEPA and is arbitrary and capricious. Many of these arguments have been used in the past to halt projects, but it is hoped by the Forest Service and timber purchasers that the improved planning that has been done on Flagtail, will avoid an unfavorable ruling in court.

The Flagtail Project decision is especially important because it represents the first of several salvage sale projects that Goodman has asked to have the emergency determination action be taken. These expedited procedures will also be applied to the Monument Project that sells next month on the Malheur National Forest, and to the large Biscuit Fire Project on the Rogue-Siskyou National Forest that sells later this spring.

The environmental groups recognize how important this first project will be in setting precedence on the nearly 500 million board feet of salvage slated for harvest in Region 6 in the next six months. Any method employed to slow down or stop the progress of these salvage projects is highly detrimental, because the wood is deteriorating at a rapid pace, and in many cases will not be merchantable if forced to stand for another summer.

The expedited forest planning measures put forth by the Bush administration are an attempt stop lengthy court battles. It goes without saying, many in the timber industry and rural communities hope the legislation will prove successful.

Tom Partin is president of the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), an organization whose mission is to create favorable operating environments for the forest products industry.

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