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Judge OKs salvage logging after Oregon fire

Wildfire damage is shown shortly after the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon. Plans to salvage timber from the fire have led to lawsuits by environmentalists.Jeff Barnard / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

An appeals court Thursday lifted its injunction barring salvage logging from the site of the nation’s worst wildfire in 2002 — an issue that has pitted environmentalists against the timber industry and Bush administration.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided a lower court judge did not abuse his discretion when he refused to stop salvage logging on old-growth forest in the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon.

Six timber sales amounting to 47 million board feet were conducted in the area and brought $2 million.

Lifting the preliminary injunction “will allow us to move forward with economic recovery and restoration of the land,” said forest supervisor Scott Conroy.

The appeal of the lower court’s ruling will be heard March 22. Thursday’s ruling should give the Forest Service and timber buyers enough time, however, to prepare for sales and start cutting trees before a ruling is issued.

Environmental groups have been trying to stop salvage logging inside old-growth reserves burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire. They argue the reserves are the habitat for the northern spotted owl and salmon, and leaving the burned timber standing is crucial to natural restoration of fish and wildlife habitat, and to prevent erosion.

The Forest Service and timber industry have countered that cutting the dead trees on 19,465 acres, about 4 percent of the area burned by the fire, will produce timber for log-starved mills and money to pay for reforesting 31,000 acres — speeding rejuvenation of fish and wildlife habitat, and reducing fire danger.

Raising similar issues, environmentalists won a lawsuit to stop logging in old-growth reserves in the area of a nearby fire that burned in 2002 on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land outside Medford.

“We still believe the proposed logging in old-growth reserves and roadless areas is illegal, and we will still have our day in court,” said Rolf Skar, campaign director of the Siskiyou Regional Education Project, one of the plaintiffs. “We now just hope the timber companies do the right thing and hold off logging these ancient forests over the winter until a judge has a chance to hear the entire case.”

Forest Service spokeswoman Judy McHugh said there was no timetable for loggers to get to work. Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said the work would take weeks, but logging was likely to begin before the March 22 hearing.

The Biscuit fire was sparked by lightning July 13, 2002, in the rugged Klamath Mountains. The fire burned 500,000 acres and threatened 17,000 people in Oregon’s Illinois Valley before it was controlled at a cost of $153 million.

The fire, the biggest in the nation that year, has become the focus of an intense political and scientific debate over whether to log and reforest the millions of acres of national forest that burn every year, or leave them largely to recover on their own.