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Retreat Under Fire Bush's Holy War in the Forests

Bush’s Holy War in the Forests

by LACEY PHILLABAUM

Falling from Mt. Jefferson’s vista to Oregon’s spectacular Metolius River, a tattered blanket of brown and black forests still carpets the foothills of the Eastern Cascades a year later. I see where towering flames must have jumped this last free-flowing section of the last best salmon stream from the Warm Spring Reservation, just where the river slows behind the blighted Round Butte dam. I am bouncing over roads like washboards, visiting the Deschutes National Forest’s proposed 32 million board feet post-fire timber salvage sale.

Each of the Deschutes River’s four tributaries flows through distinct aspects of Central Oregon’s changeable landscape, where East meets West, where valleys meet mountains and the mountains, stark desert. The Upper Deschutes creates the main flow, running south to north through scorched lava fields and lunar aspen stands. Squaw Creek falls glacially and dramatically from the feet of the Three Sisters mountains. The desert run of the much abused Crooked River cuts a deep shaft through the High Desert and Oregon’s famed Smith Rock. But it’s the Metolius, with its spectacular spring, coppery Ponderosa-lined banks and healthy fish runs, which was awarded Wild and Scenic status by the feds and is best beloved by the locals. I daydream about the spiritual place that is the now submerged confluence of these prized rivers.

Now, George W. Bush comes here to tout his Healthy Forest Initiative, just miles from the evidence that his administration pushes logging before, during and after every fire, deconstructing decades of hard-won environmental law.

President Bush tried to make the Metolius River the backdrop for his stump speech in Oregon on August 21. He intended to use a small thinning project near the resort community of Camp Sherman to make the case for his Healthy Forest Initiative. Behind the picture perfect backdrop and beyond the range of the scripted soundbites, just downstream, however, a more representative example of the Healthy Forest Initiative is this sale, the Eyerly sale.

The Forest Service knew in 1996 that this unroaded swath of forest was ready to burn. The Metolius Late Successional Reserve (LSR) Analysis predicted, "In ponderosa pine forests, where the historic fire-return interval was eight to 12 years for low intensity fires and 150 years for stand replacement fires, fire exclusion has increased the fire return interval and increased the expected fire intensities." The analysis called for all management to include prescribed burning: "For the development and long-term maintenance of late-succesional habitat in the Metolius LSR, the use of prescribed fire should be encouraged. Harvesting, thinning and other vegetation treatments should be designed to encourage the use of prescribed fire." Management activity continued, but no prescribed burns were carried out in conjunction, as required by the LSRA.

Almost inevitably, the forest burned. Now, regeneration begins. Fireweed and ceonothus hold the precious but damaged soil to the ground. Some of the soil is loosened four or five inches deep on 60 degree slopes above 10 or so tributaries of the Metolius. Logging above these rugged, steep and already denuded streams won’t benefit the protected critical habitat of the bull trout.

Weighing in at a hefty 35 million board feet, the Eyerly sale is as large as the sales of the 1990s. It would log in an inventoried roadless area, protected Late Successional Reserve (set aside for Northern spotted owls) and in bald eagle nesting habitat. Under the Healthy Forest Initiative, the Eyerly sale could be broken up into segments and categorically excluded from environmental review, curtailing the Forest Service’s administrative review process. Typical of this illegal rush, the Sisters Ranger District hopes to auction the Eyerly forests for logging this fall, even though a draft environmental review has yet to be released. Work crews have marked the trees to be cut before the environmental assessment has even been drafted or opened to public comment. The fluttering blue flags marking cut areas in the scorched trees signal that my days bumping down these washboarded roads have been in vain. I drive home.

Wholesale logging of old growth on public land is a foregone conclusion under the Healthy Forest Initiative. Bush tried to highlight a fire-prevention thinning project, but you don’t have to look far to see the bigger picture. Even from his convoy of five double-bladed Chinook helicopters, Bush couldn’t quite see it that way during the 15 minutes that he toured the latest fire before dashing off for a round of golf.

Bush never came any closer than those helicopters to the Metolius River. Wednesday night, the night before his visit, impenetrable dark clouds blocked our view of the Cascades from Smith Rock. Billowing, sudden gusts of wind cooled another 100 degree day. We conjectured wildfire, but storms seemed imminent. The extreme atmospheric changes from streaky red sunset over blue sky to foreboding blackness felt Biblical. The acrid taste of barely distinguished smoke and an unclear haze along the skyline confirmed a new fire. Forcing Bush’s tactical retreat from Camp Sherman to the Redmond Airport, this chance fire seems both omen and answer to my prayers.

LACEY PHILLABAUM, editor of an agricultural newspaper, In Good Tilth, and former editor of the Earth First! Journal, lives in Bend, Oregon. She can be reached at: lacey@tilth.org