Betting on Biscuit

It’s rare to find two diametrically opposed sides using the same exact posterchild to support their views. However, that’s essentially what’s developed over the past few years as the logging industry have locked horns with conservation groups and scientists in a battle over so-called “healthy forests” policy and the future of America’s public lands following wildfires.

That “same exact postchild” is the 2002 Biscuit Fire that burned nearly 500,000 acres in the Siskiyou Wild Rivers Area of southwestern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest and the U.S. Forest Service’s subsequent Biscuit “Fire Recovery Project” that approved cutting down 19,000 acres of ancient forest reserves and roadless wildlands in a forest of global ecological significance.

“Charred Moonscape?” On Biscuit, Reality Takes Backseat to Rhetoric

Natural fires have been an important part of the Siskiyou Wild Rivers area for thousands of years. The fire-enriched Siskiyou region has more conifer species than any other temperate-zone forest in the world, and has been identified by scientists as one of the most important ecosystems on planet. In other words, not exactly the ideal place for industrial logging of ancient forest reserves and roadless wildlands.

Unfortunately, listening to some people, you’d be led to believe that the 2002 Biscuit Fire laid waste to everything in its path. While referred to repeatedly by the logging industry and their supporters as catastrophic, devastating and unnatural, the reality is that 84% of the Biscuit Fire area was either unburned, or burned at low to moderate intensity.

Yet, this reality hasn’t prevented Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) ­ who incidentally has received $643,363 in campaign contributions from the logging industry during his senate career and was one of the major supporters of the so-called “Healthy Forest Restoration Act” ­ from declaring in a recent opinion piece that “Today, nearly half the Siskiyou National Forest remains a charred moonscape.”

In fact, since Senator Smith apparently believes that he gets a free pass from reality, he has enough confidence to boldly use the Biscuit Fire and the botched Biscuit “Fire Recovery Project” as the posterchild for his Orwellian-inspired Forests for Future Generations Act.

This bill and its companion in the House ­ the so-called Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act from fellow Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden ($165,646 in logging industry campaign contributions since the 2004 election cycle) ­ essentially would fulfill the logging industry’s wish list by providing all the bells and whistles for more industrial logging in our nation’s public forests that weren’t initially provided in the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative or previous laws passed by the GOP-controlled Congress such as the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

Specifically, these bills use natural and essential ecosystem functions such as wildfire, insect and disease outbreaks and windstorms to put old growth forests and roadless areas at risk from logging and roadbuilding; create an expedited process for logging after fires which scientists conclude is the worst kind of logging ­ polluting streams and hindering forest recovery; allow the Forest Service to divert funds from fire protection programs to pay for logging projects; and eliminate meaningful public participation for post fire logging projects and remove protection for imperiled wildlife by waiving requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

A Hard Look at the Biscuit “Fire Recovery Project”

The Forest Service, logging industry and some politicians have used buzz-words such as forest restoration, fuel reduction and community protection to justify the so-called Biscuit “Fire Recovery Project,” which is actually one of the largest public lands logging projects in U.S. history.

During the summer of 2004 Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy signed a record of decision for the Biscuit “recovery” plan which called for logging 370 million board feet of trees from 30 square miles of the Siskiyou National Forest ­ enough trees to fill 74,000 log trucks lines up for over 600 miles. That’s over 20 times greater than the annual logging levels on the Siskiyou National Forest during the past decade.

To make matters worse, 90% of all acres proposed for logging are within the watershed of the spectacular National Wild and Scenic Illinois River ­ a source of clean water for wild salmon and pride and tourism dollars for local residences and businesses.

A number of conservation groups filed suit to stop the misguided industrial logging in the Siskiyou Wild Rivers Area, but federal District Court Judge Michael Hogan ­ a longtime supporter of logging old-growth forests in the northwest ­ has, not surprisingly, sided with the U.S. Forest Service and logging industry at every turn.

Local resistance to the Biscuit Logging Plan intensified in October 2004 when logging officially started and reached a fevered pitch in early March 2005 when over fifty citizens were arrested for peacefully blocking a bridge over the Illinois River.

Local scientists and activists have also done an excellent job of monitoring the negative impacts of the Biscuit logging and providing the public and the media with graphic photos, which, to even a casual observer, clearly demonstrates that post-fire industrial logging has absolutely nothing to do with forest restoration or recovery.

More problems with the Biscuit Logging Plan surfaced in August 2005 when it was reported that an error by the Forest Service resulted in loggers mistakenly cutting over 300 trees in the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area.

Jack Williams, who was actually supervisor of the Siskiyou National Forest from 1999 to 2001, told the Eugene Register Guard that it wasn’t just an intrusion by loggers that troubled him. It was an especially poor form of logging. “When you start at the trail head for the botanical area, you’re in the middle of what looks like a clear-cut from the 1970s.”

That’s really an amazing statement if you stop and think about it. Here we have the previous U.S. Forest Service Supervisor for the Siskiyou National Forest saying that this “kindler, gentler” industrial logging, which Senator Smith, Congressman Walden and the logging industry repeatedly claim is needed to restore our public forests, actually “looks like a clear cut from the 1970s.”

New Year, New Information

The first few weeks of the New Year have certainly been ushered in by a series of developments concerning the Biscuit logging project and the larger issue of post-fire logging and restoration.

A new study done in the area burned in the Biscuit Fire by researchers at Oregon State University found that post-fire logging may actually hinder forest regeneration and increase fire risk, something that conservation groups have argued for years.

In far reaching Associated Press article about the new study, Jerry Franklin, professor of forestry at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the Northwest Forest Plan, stated, “This [study] is very consistent with my testimony [on Walden’s salvage logging bill last year], which is that salvage almost never makes a positive contribution to ecological recovery.”

This new study has apparently upset some of the more strident folks in the logging industry so much that when I simply forwarded a copy of the study to an Idaho-based website devoted to issues of logging and wildfires Brett Bennett of Bennett Lumber Products in Idaho wrote and told me “Someone should have slapped your mother for raising you so poorly.”

Then, on January 12 more bad news for supporters of industrial logging following wildfires rolled in when it was reported that the U.S. Forest Service lost more than $9 million in taxpayer funds logging trees burned by the Biscuit Fire.

Can We Get Some Censorship Please?

To make matters even more interesting, on Friday it was revealed that some of the more outspoken pro-logging professors at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry (which receives about 10% of its funding directly from a tax on logging) wanted the nation’s top scientific journal to withhold publishing the Oregon State study critical of post-fire logging.

According to the Oregonian, the issue of the journal Science, including the OSU study is due out Friday, and Donald Kennedy, Science’s top editor and a former president of Stanford University, said there is no chance the research will be suppressed.

“They’re trying to rewind history,” Kennedy told the Oregonian. Kennedy also said the OSU professors, who contend the research is misleading, can respond to the study once it’s published. “That’s the way scientists handle disputes, not by censorship.”

Earlier in the day I shared this new information contained in the Oregonian article with some colleagues who are themselves professors at a school of forestry at a public university in the West. Upon reading the article, and having been following the situation at OSU, one of the professors wrote back with this response, “We all need to be aware that our freedom as scientists to publish our findings can be threatened at any time, especially as more and more funding for Universities come from private sources. We need to be ever vigilant and supportive of one another when it looks like censorship may occur.”

Yet the Biscuit Bluff Continues

With Congress back in session, you can bet that Senator Smith and Congressman Walden will be hard at work making sure that the millions of dollars that the logging industry have provided them and other members of Congress in campaign contributions don’t go unrewarded.

In fact, undeterred by the graphic visual realities of the Biscuit logging project and new scientific studies, on Friday Congressman Walden’s office sent out a glowing press release announcing that Walden’s “Forest Recovery Legislation,” has “earned broad support from local governments, conservation groups, forestry professionals, educators and more than 140 Members of Congress from throughout the nation” and that the “Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act aims to dramatically improve the environmental health of federal forests after [wildfire].”

HmmmStrange that Congressman Walden’s press release didn’t mention a word about the new studies about the Biscuit logging or express concern about attempts at censorship coming from the Dean of the Oregon State University School of Forestry. That free pass from reality must be nice.

MATTHEW KOEHLER writes from Missoula, Montana where he is the director of the Native Forest Network, which currently has a lawsuit pending against the U.S. Forest Service’s Biscuit logging plan. He enjoys spending time hiking and cross-country skiing through the “charred moonscape” forests of the Northern Rockies. He can be contacted at