Despite protests by the governor of Oregon and environmentalists, the U.S. Forest Service on Friday auctioned off the first timber from a roadless area of a national forest since the Bush administration eased rules on logging.
Hours after the auction, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he would seek a court order blocking the harvest, based on a lawsuit that Oregon, Washington, California and Mexico have filed challenging the legality of the administration's overhaul of protections of the 58.5 million acres of undeveloped areas in national forests known as roadless areas.
"Opening this particular roadless area to salvage logging now — when we are in the process of preparing a petition to the federal government on the proper management of those areas — contradicts the assurances the Bush Administration has made that the governors' opinions on such issues will be respected," Kulongoski said in a statement.
The Mike's Gulch timber sale on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon could lead to the first major harvest in a roadless area anywhere in the country since the Bush administration adopted rules giving states a chance to help the Forest Service decide whether to log in the undeveloped areas.
Roadless areas are tracts generally larger than 5,000 acres that have long been considered too remote and too rugged to be logged economically. Pressure has been increasing to exploit the old-growth timber found in them.
Roadless rule in limbo
The Forest Service characterized the sale as overdue restoration of an area burned in a massive 2002 wildfire. The service said the plan comes after a federal judge in Wyoming overturned the old rule protecting roadless areas, and before the new roadless rule was adopted, so is not governed by it.
But environmentalists maintain the old rule remains in effect pending resolution of appeals. They characterized the auction as the opening salvo in a Bush administration effort to begin logging undeveloped areas of national forests that are more valuable for clean water and for fish and wildlife habitat.
"The bottom line is the Bush administration is focusing on unraveling environmental protections," said Lesley Adams of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. "They can and should be working on the common ground that exists," to offer sales that lower the danger of wildfire through thinning.
The sale is within the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, which together with the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area comprise some 300,000 acres of national forest, considered the largest intact piece of old-growth habitat on the West Coast. Conservation groups have proposed the area as a national monument to protect the diverse mix of plant species that grow there.
Prior to the auction, Kulongoski had asked the Forest Service to hold off on the Mike's Gulch sale, urging it to protect all 1.9 million acres of roadless areas in Oregon from logging. On Friday, Democratic U.S. Rep Peter DeFazio of Oregon joined Kulongoski in opposition, arguing that the sale should wait until the state's petition is considered.
Competing against one other bidder, John West, president of Silver Creek Timber Co. of Merlin, went more than $64,000 over the minimum bid, offering $300,052 for the right to log 9.4 million board feet of the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area.
The area was burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire, which was the nation's biggest that year at 500,000 acres. To date, some 60 million board feet have been harvested from the fire area. Mike's Gulch and the Blackberry timber sale to be offered later this year, are the last.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to block the sale, saying that environmentalists had not shown they were likely to win or that the sale would cause irreparable harm.
Court hearing soon
However, another challenge has been filed in U.S. District Court, and the Forest Service has agreed not to formally award the sale to West until after a judge hears arguments Wednesday on a motion for a temporary restraining order. This lawsuit contends that new scientific information should be considered showing the forest is regenerating on its own without logging and replanting.
Even after four years of standing dead, trees more than 14 inches in diameter were still in good shape, West said. He said he will likely begin logging this summer, employing some 60 people. He said he had not found a buyer for the logs yet, but expected they would go to mills producing plywood veneer.
No new roads are to be built for the harvest, and helicopters will be used to take the logs out.
Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy said he expects logging crews to be confronted by protesters, as they were last summer when West and others harvested timber burned by Biscuit in old-growth reserves.
He added that the Forest Service has no plans to offer any green timber for sale within roadless areas on the Rogue River-Siskiyou. Any such sale would have to be approved by the chief of the Forest Service.