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Oregon project tests Obama forest policy

Conservation groups are closely watching whether President Barack Obama follows through on his promise to break from the Bush administration and protect the 58 million acres of national forests.
Roadless Forests
A building stands on the shores of Diamond Lake, Ore., where dense forests and a growing beetle infestation have raised fears of wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service plans to thin around the cabins as well as in back country regions known as roadless areas. Jeff Barnard / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Sharon Karr's cabin was built on the shores of this high mountain lake in 1928, there were few neighbors and little thought given to the prospects of wildfire.

There are now 102 cabins on this land on the Umpqua National Forest, and fears of a big fire have grown. Young trees have crowded in among the big ones, and an increasing number of the pines are turning red and dying from the borings of mountain pine beetles.

The Bush administration had proposed lessening fire dangers by thinning trees around the cabins and also in the backcountry.

Conservation groups are closely watching the logging proposal as a test of whether President Barack Obama follows through on his promise to break from the Bush administration and protect the 58 million acres of national forests across the country that are known as roadless areas from commercial logging.

"This puts Obama now in the position ... where he can clarify and end 20 years of roadless battles by making a very clear decision that they simply should not be roaded and logged," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We are getting mixed signals."

Cutting trees around her cabin
Karr is resigned to cut trees around her cabin to reduce the risk of fire, but is less sure about thinning far from the cabins in the back country, where the U.S. Forest Service says it needs fire breaks so firefighters can stop a fire before it gets to the cabins.

"It's at that point where I can't decide if we need to save the roadless area or we need to protect what we call the urban interface," she said.

Steve Koch, general manager of the Diamond Lake Resort, has no doubts thinning in the back country will help prevent a disaster.

"Once it (a fire) gets going it's not going to stop. It's going to walk right over the top of us," he said.

During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to respect a 2001 Clinton administration rule to protect roadless areas in national forests from commercial logging. It was his one promise concerning national forests, which had been a battleground during the Bush administration's eight years in office.

Roadless areas have escaped logging largely because they have been too remote and rugged to make timber harvests profitable. But with the government spending $1 billion a year to fight wildfires, pressure to do something is growing. The 2001 rule allows thinning to reduce the danger of wildfire and control insect infestations — both of which are factors around Diamond Lake.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last May said he would personally review all proposals to log in roadless areas. One exception is national forests in Idaho, where the state adopted the Bush administration's offer to take authority over roadless development.

In August Vilsack gave a speech saying conserving national forests was a necessity and they would be managed to protect clean water and combat climate change.

Conservation groups wary
Some conservation groups remain wary.

Though the Obama administration has refused to defend a number of Bush administration environmental polices in court, it did not walk away from 2007 plans to open nearly 1 million acres to road building on four national forests in Southern California, Suckling said.

A federal judge last month tossed out the plan.

"They have been slow out of the box and have not been aggressive about withdrawing the flawed policies of the Bush administration," Suckling said. "The sense I get of Vilsack and the Forest Service now is they are going to be significantly reticent to gear up for significant new roadless projects."

'We want to protect roadless areas'
Jay Jensen, deputy undersecretary of Agriculture for the Forest Service, said the logging proposal has yet to reach the secretary's desk — it is still moving through the Forest Service review process — but if it does it will be evaluated on its merits.

"We want to protect roadless areas," he said. "We will be looking at each one of these with a fresh perspective of what is happening on the ground." Jensen said there could be some cases where thinning to control bugs and fire was appropriate.

In Southern Oregon, the lodgepole pines that dominate the forests around Diamond Lake are showing increasing numbers of mountain pine beetle infestations, setting the stage for a big fire that starts the natural cycle all over again, Diamond Lake District Ranger Bill Gamble said.

Thinning in roadless areas was designed to give firefighters a place to make a stand, control the insect outbreak, and make highways safe as evacuation routes, he said. Because the lodgepole pine has little economic value, the roadless thinning will likely have to be paid for some other way than selling the timber. He stressed that plans are still subject to change.

Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild countered that insect infestations and fire are just part of the natural process, and there is scientific evidence thinning will not control either. At a time when money is scarce, it makes little sense to promote a project that won't pay for itself, he said.

Rob Vandermark of the Heritage Forest Campaign of the Pew Environmental Group said they expect Vilsack to uphold the 2001 roadless rule, but ultimately they are putting their faith in legislation recently introduced in Congress that would turn the policy into law.