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Plans for big cut in Bitterroot draws fire

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A proposal by the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) to salvage log 181 million board feet of timber from forested land that burned last summer has inflamed some environmentalists, who argue that the Forest Service never intended to implement the proposal the public commented on.

Last winter BNF officials held numerous meetings in the Bitterroot Valley to gauge public opinion about what to do with the 307,000 acres of national forest land that burned in the summer of 2000. From those meetings came a draft Environmental Impact Statement in late May that identified a “proposed action,” the so-called “alternative B.”

The conservation group Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB) had responded to alternative B in a 69-page report, complete with scientific references. Now, FOB spokesman Jim Olsen says the public was misled into believing that alternative B had been chosen by the agency and would likely be modified to include additional information gleaned from the comment period.

But before the draft EIS was released, Olsen says, the BNF was busy developing Alternative F, which was ultimately chosen by the agency. Alternative F calls for salvage logging 181 million board feet from less than 50,000 acres of land—more lumber than has been cut in the BNF in the last 13 years combined.

“They had the public looking at one alternative when they knew they were working on another,” says Olsen. “The public didn’t know about Alternative F. I’m a little fried about that.”

But Deputy Supervisor Spike Thompson, public spokesman for the project, says FOB may not fully understand the process. “It’s very common for us to put out a draft EIS that has a range of alternatives,” says Thompson, “and it’s very common there would be another alternative developed.”

A request for an “emergency” exemption on 5,000 acres has also drawn fire. Under this proposal, logging would be done in winter to minimize soil damage. FOB says the agency is seeking an emergency exemption from a 105-day public comment period simply because it would take the project too deep into winter for logging to begin this year.

“They created an emergency by their timing,” says Olsen. “The emergency is, ‘We want to get this timber out.’” But Thompson argues that the BNF consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which wants to protect bull trout habitat from soil erosion. If the logging can be done quickly, it will coincide with sediment runoff from fall rains and flush it out of the system all at once, rather than over a period of years, which ultimately would be more harmful to trout.

“I almost feel like we’re being accused of subterfuge,” Thompson says.

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