In 2002, a forest fire burned over some 500,000 acres in southern Oregon’s Siskiyou Wild Rivers region. The Biscuit Fire burned for weeks, over $150 million was spent as an army of firefighters bulldozed and back-burned huge fire breaks to corral the flames in a perimeter before Mother Nature, as usual, stepped in and doused the embers.
Traveling through the burn area this week, I got a feel for the scale and severity of the blaze. Some areas, many those that were back-burned, were burnt to a crisp with little growing back two years later, though here and there plots of spectacular wildflowers gave color to the otherwise gray landscape. Other areas showed a classic mosaic pattern with some trees burned and others right next to the charred stalks thriving as if no fire ever occurred.
The Forest Service’s (USFS) own post-fire assessment classified approximately 61 percent of lands within the burn perimeter as unburned or low burn severity. Only 16 percent of the fire was classified as high severity, where crown fire consumed foliage. A subsequent assessment found that less than half of the fire area suffered greater than 75 percent tree kill.
The Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area’s close to 180,000 acres are entirely within the fire perimeter. In fact, almost 73 percent of the fire burned in Wilderness and inventoried Roadless Areas which is why only a handful of dwellings — just four houses — burned. Yet, the Forest Service spent all that money and back-burned areas that would not have burned at all — or might have burned at much less intensity and forest mortality.
Real Fire Threat Reduction
Can you just imagine if that $150 million had been spent proactively on fuels reduction plans around human settlements? How about a system of shaded fuel breaks? These are known to reduce fuel load and help prevent an area from drying out and becoming more flammable while at the same time providing wildlife habitat. How about zoning more fire resistant materials in building?
And how abut addressing the zoning that allows for housing to be built in especially fire prone areas? That certainly affects insurance rates of everyone, not to mention, putting firefighters lives at risk. It’s taking insurance companies refusing to cover new dwellings built on floodplains for zoning to catch up to that problem.
The forests have always burned. Certainly years of government-funded Smokey the Bear fire suppression successes have intensified the severity of the burns by increasing the fuel loads. This requires dedicated government funding for these proven methods of fire prevention which are more cost efficient and least harmful to the overall environment. The money saved leaving the burned outback alone can be far better spent protecting existing homes while the wild lands heal themselves, again far less expensively than more invasive management.
As I drove the winding road along the Illinois River, salvage logging of “hazard” trees was in full swing. Grit covered men were doing the dirty work of cutting any big dead tree along the road. Apparently the thousands of small diameter trees that are just as dead and just as likely to fall on the road are not “hazards” and are being left behind as the big logs roll to the mills. Huge piles of definitely fire prone logging slash are all over the place. Even “hazard” trees well on the downhill side of the road which couldn’t even reach the road should they fall are being cut. Already some 10 million board feet (thousands of trees) have been cut under an emergency Categorical Exclusion clause that allows the logging to go forward without challenge under environmental laws.
On June 1st, the Forest Service released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the Biscuit “Salvage” Plan. The FEIS calls for logging an additional 370 million board feet over 19,000 acres of the burn. It mostly prescribes use of existing roads using helicopters, deemed too expensive by many mills, to haul the trees to landings on the already extensive road network. In a last minute plan secretly hatched by the Forest Service, Oregon politicians and unknown others, the FEIS also recommends an additional 60,000 acres be added to the existing Wilderness.
Study upon study show that logging after a fire is extremely detrimental to the restoration of the forest and wildlife. It only makes things worse — compacting soils, removing what little shade remains, introducing exotic plant species that hitchhike on logging equipment, conversion to monoculture tree farms, etc. But, just as fear of terrorists is used by the administration to sway opinion, so is our natural fear of fire being used to justify increased logging, again far away from most human settlement. These forests evolved with fire and we’ll always have fires — the timber companies count on it. When I worked in the lumber mills in my youth the saying was “The blacker the trees; the greener the paycheck.”
The Biscuit Post-fire logging sale is also predicted to be one of the largest money losing timber sales ever. The USFS historically has lost a lot of money dishing out these sales to industry. Some estimates say the timber sale program costs the Treasury over $1 billion per year in direct costs, not even considering the loss of nature’s inventory.
The proposed 370 million board feet of “salvaged” timber will cost the taxpayers over $40 million to sell. Again, if that kind of subsidy were given to fireproofing residential areas, homeowners and taxpayers, not to mention ecosystems, would all benefit at a much better cost-benefit ratio.
With a timber sale this big (largest in memory) it’s a given that forest preservation activists will zero in, even with the possible new Wilderness come-on, as the Bush administration has made the Biscuit ground zero in their efforts to increase logging on Public Lands. And Post-fire logging is the mechanism of the new millennium
On Your Mark…
In a letter dated June 3, Regional Forester Linda Goodman granted emergency status to 11 timber sales comprising 80.4 million board feet that lie within so-called matrix areas designated for logging under the Northwest Forest Plan, and old growth forest reserves where fish and wildlife habitat are the top priorities. The sales are scheduled for auction July 8th.
Goodman denied emergency status for 24.6 million board feet lying within inventoried roadless areas. The emergency declaration allows logging to go forward while the regional forester’s office considers any administrative appeals from the public. It remains to be seen how the incursion into the Late Successional Reserves (LSRs) will be taken by all parties. The matrix forests were already consigned to sacrifice zone status with the embrace of Clinton’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. The entire purpose of the LSRs was so that enough of them were set aside so that dependent species could handle such a catastrophic event as this fire and recover naturally.
The Local Interests
All this cheap timber has the local mill owners salivating. They have been meeting with the USFS, developers, various Wise Use advocates and, of course, one foundation-paid “green” with one eye on the money to be made (subsidized timber AND foundation grants) and the other on the sure-to-come resistance to the logging scheme. The group’s sole output has been a shameless “Listen Up, Outsiders” press release, complete with allusions to activist-instigated “violence,” which was published in the local papers.
It partly reads: “Welcome to our community…Loggers, mill workers, forest service staff, environmentalists and concerned citizens are all neighbors; each represent pieces of the patch-work quilt that is the fabric of our community. Do express yourself while here, but please do not interrupt the dialogue developing among us — in fact, you might even want to listen in.”
Of course, this begs the question; who gets to dialogue and who just listens in? As longtime activist Tim Ream noted, “We all know that if National Forest management decisions were left up to those who live closest to the trees that we’d have lost most everything in the country by now.”
Ultimately, it’s not going to be the locals who decide it. As Bob Dole used to say, “I know it. You know it. The American people know it.” And these are the public’s forests and we all know it. That’s the real reason for the preemptive strike by “local’ interests. That a foundation sponsored local group presumed to represent all concerned environmentalists and went along with it shows just how bankrupt the foundation strategy has become. They ALL fear real activists weighing in.
Resistance at Kelsey-Whiskey
And, indeed, the activists have shown up. Greenpeace has docked, joining local group KS Wild in defending the nearby forests.
Driving the back roads along the spectacular Wild Rogue River, I stopped at many lookouts and gazed over the non-burned forest there. A diverse forest, luminescent with new growth, stretched all along the steep canyons. Pure white water pools, riffles and falls roared below. Fir, madrone, incense cedar, tan oaks, chinquapin and a variety of pines populate the region. The staggering beauty has been the backdrop for numerous movies — notably Rooster Cogburn and The River Wild.
Soon, the road became gravel and left the Rogue and ascended up the ridges and through a sea of clearcuts and plantations in an area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). After the long climb, a turn down a side road brings one to the Greenpeace Forest Rescue Station, the first in North America.
There activists have set up camp for the duration — planning to stop the Biscuit “Salvage” and the BLM’s massive Kelsey-Whiskey Timber Sale which would cut around the 46,464-acre Zane Grey Roadless Area, the BLM’s largest forested roadless area nationwide. It’s nothing but wild lands from the ridgetop all the way down Kelsey Creek to the Rogue River and on to the Pacific Ocean.
The Rescue Station is on road right on the edge of an ancient forest that is scheduled to be cut as part of the Kelsey-Whiskey TS. Here the trees aren’t burned, so the reason for logging is instead given as the trees are old, decadent and dying and need to be cut and replaced with new young trees in what they euphemistically call a Regeneration Harvest. The plan here is to “Regeneration Harvest” 9 million board feet over 500 acres with an additional 1100 impacted by “thinning” and road construction and reconstruction.
The first thing one sees upon arrival at the Rescue Station is a fluorescent green dome, a recycled leftover once used at a Mars Candy Co. garden party unveiling new M&Ms that color. (Rumors flying through the larger community had it that rapper Eminem donated the dome and another blue one that serves as the main kitchen. Kinda makes one wish he would plug in.) The dome serves as the information center, complete with photos, literature and an area for educational trainings.
Next to the dome is a fully equipped baby blue fire truck complete with enough hose to reach the entire encampment. A satellite communications truck sits nearby. Bright red hard-shelled “apple domes” and large Quonset-style tents sit behind — recycled from past Arctic campaigns, complete with Save the Arctic logos. The apple domes serve for splendid bear-proof food storage. One Quonset is used as HQ. Solar panels provide the power to run the off-grid camp. Tireless campaigner Ginger Cassady runs an urban interface office set up in nearby Grants Pass, Oregon, allowing for easier access for media and communications.
Off to the side, just inside the boundaries of the proposed Kelsey-Whiskey sale, are two large platforms suspended some 100 feet up in the ancient trees. This being Greenpeace, a Zodiac inflatable boat serves as elevator between the ground and the platforms. The platforms are painted in Greenpeace colors — yellow with Forest Rescue Station lettered on the sides. Groups of folks train in climbing techniques and other small groups go on botanical ID hikes through the forest. I take in the hike with Hazel and Rain, two women quite knowledgeable of the flora and the politics of the area. The BLM has marked the few trees that won’t be cut with orange paint, claiming “this isn’t a clearcut.” It appears to me that they’ve painted about two to three trees per acre!
The entire show is run as a Greenpeace ship complete with crew. “It took two days for the basic infrastructure to get set up and it’s been evolving ever since,” reports Bill Richardson, Greenpeace’s longtime Campaigns Director. The purpose of the state-of-the-art encampment is to educate and empower the hundreds of forest defenders who have begun to arrive.
Longtime Greenpeacer (and Earth First! cofounder) Mike Roselle can be found in the blue M&M dome where he runs the kitchen. Together with another veteran activist, Joe Keating of the Sierra Club and Back to the WALL (witness against lawless logging) and a crew of younger activists, Mike puts out a fine meal this misty day.
At the end of it, sitting around the fire barrel, Mike notes, “I’m here until it’s over. Until they cancel the sales. In fact, I see this as liberated land we need to reclaim from wrongdoers under Mother Nature’s Eco Act. All this gear here belongs to the people. Anyone who wants to come and help is welcome. Male, female, Democrat, Republican, Anarchist, old, young…you name it. All are welcome.”
And, one can help not just by showing up at the Rescue Station – though that’s highly recommended — but, also by checking in on the website and/or donating to the cause. You can contact Ginger and crew through the website for all the info you’ll need.
Bill Richardson takes it further and explains that this is just the first Rescue Station and that the 300,000 member group has plans for two more for North America. One will be in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia and the other in our largest Ancient rainforest – Alaska’s threatened Tongass National Forest. The Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, is on the way and will dock in Portland July 2nd for a support rally. (The Sunrise, an icebreaker, is a former sealing ship that Greenpeace once protested upon, but later bought and refitted.) It’s all part of a larger strategy to save the remnants of the North American Rain Forests.
The Rescue Station is an excellent movement building skill/building exercise and it truly is a national campaign. As Roselle has noted, “It’s no longer just about Dinky Creek up the Whatamacallit River. It’s way past time to end Ancient Forest logging on ALL Public Lands. These are our lands. They don’t belong to the timber beasts; they belong to themselves and the species that live here.”
On my way back to my home bioregion, I pass through Grants Pass. I notice a plethora of new colorfully painted, full-sized bear sculptures adorning the city’s downtown sidewalks. I then notice a sculpture of eagles and salmon on the railings of the Rogue River Bridge. A few years ago, forest activist and Presidential Point of Light award winner, Jeremy Hall and I came up with the Donnelly-Hall dictum; “The more endangered a species becomes, the more artistic renderings of said species become popular.” (Think pandas and whales.) Forest and freedom loving Greenpeace activists and others are on the scene making sure that the real versions continue to live wild on our wondrous planet.
MICHAEL DONNELLY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org