The charred wooden skeletons in the burned-out patches of the Biscuit Wilderness are totems of change, hinting at the past like the ruins of a once-vibrant city. The burned trees also harbor keys to the future: the nutrients that will feed the forest's re-growth. Already plants are shooting up in tufted rings around their trunks, shocks of green against the black, soaking in nitrogen-rich ash and the sunlight that beams clear to the forest floor.
The Biscuit Fire blazed a mosaic into southern Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest in the summer of 2002. It was the biggest wildfire in the country that year, eating through 500,000 acres of America's most florally diverse wilderness. To a human observer, the fire appears devastating, having ripped dark scars into that beautifully freakish landscape. But the forest operates on a broader time scale, and the burn is part of a natural pattern of destruction and regeneration that created an ecosystem unlike any other on Earth. The forest, in all its stark magnificence, needs the fire.
Now, the Forest Service pushes forward with a logging plan that could rob the nutrients from the future forest, like starving a woman in the early stages of pregnancy. The Biscuit Plan proposes to remove 370 million board feet of timber — enough to fill logging trucks positioned bumper-to-bumper from Canada to Mexico — from 20,000 acres of the Siskiyou. Opponents of the operation say it contradicts the Northwest Forest Plan, enacted in 1994 to balance logging with endangered species protections. The Forest Service's potential breach of that legislation is the basis of two federal lawsuits challenging the legality of the Biscuit Plan. Silver Creek Timber Company has already started cutting, seemingly trying to get the trees on the ground before the lawyers get to court. Meanwhile, protesters link up on bridges, hang from trees and blockade roads, trying desperately to stall the operation until judges can rule it illegal.
Eugene lawyer Lauren Regan is not afraid to call herself an activist. She does environmental and criminal defense work for her independent firm, and she represents protesters pro-bono for the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a local nonprofit that she founded. She's one of those people who seems to cram 50 hours of work into a 24-hour day, yet she comes across as polished and well-rested, her long sandy hair framing a calm, youthful face.
These days, most of Regan's work bucks up against the Biscuit logging operation. Last December, she filed a lawsuit on behalf of several environmental groups challenging several components of the Forest Service's Biscuit Plan. In late February, she also filed an emergency injunction to delay cutting, citing Forest Service contracts that prohibit logging during the rainy season. Two weeks later, federal district Judge Michael Hogan denied the injunction, saying that the timber industry's economic interest trumped environmental concerns.
His ruling allowed Silver Creek Timber Company to continue cutting. Regan immediately filed an emergency appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, challenging the legality of post-fire logging in old growth reserves and "matrix" (mixed-growth) areas in the Biscuit Wilderness.
Regan says that the Biscuit Plan threatens the spotted owl, marbled murrelet and coho salmon habitats protected under the Northwest Forest Plan. Further, she charges that logging during the wet season risks infecting Port Orford cedars throughout the Biscuit Wilderness with root rot, a highly contagious and untreatable fungus.
"The Forest Service has turned their back on their own preservation system and on wet season restrictions," she says. "Because they know that this logging is illegal, they're trying get as many trees as possible in the old growth areas down on the ground before we stop them. Then we'll have nothing left to fight over. The damage will be done. There's nothing we can do to make the trees stand up again."
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) is leading another lawsuit over the Biscuit Plan, charging that the Forest Service is violating its own rules regarding how the cutting is done. In the summer of 2004, Judge Hogan agreed with FSEEE that the Forest Service was illegally allowing timber company employees, rather than Forest Service scientists, to select which trees to cut and which to leave for wildlife. Hogan issued an injunction to prevent the agency from proceeding until they corrected their mistake. When the Forest Service did so in early September, Hogan lifted the injunction. FSEEE's case continues, charging that the Forest Service is allowing the timber company to inadequately mark streamside buffers.
A third federal lawsuit, led by the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) and Earthjustice on behalf of seven environmental nonprofits, challenges the portion of the Biscuit Plan that seeks to log in inventoried roadless areas and old-growth reserves. In the summer of 2004, the plaintiffs filed for an injunction to prevent the start of the logging operation based on technical flaws in the Forest Service plan. Judge Hogan rejected the request, but the plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted them a stay — delaying logging while judges considered the case. The court later rejected the appeal and removed the stay, allowing Silver Creek Timber Company to begin logging on March 7.
On March 22, WELC and Earthjustice attorneys presented their arguments to a magistrate judge, who will submit his recommendations to a federal judge, who will rule on the case. WELC attorney Marc Fink expects a decision within several weeks, but he shares Regan's frustration that the courts are moving slower than the logging company. "We're optimistic that the courts will rule in our favor," he says, "but we're not optimistic that there will be much left of the areas important to our clients."
Speaking for the Trees
Seventy-two-year old great-grandmother Joan Norman moves more quickly than the courts. On March 6, she learned about the Biscuit Plan at the PIELC conference in Eugene. That night she drove home to Cave Junction, the city nearest the Biscuit Wilderness, and at 4:30 am on March 7, she joined a group of protesters and parked herself in a lawn chair on a bridge over the Illinois River, blocking a logging truck heading toward the timber sale. "Somebody had to do something," she says.
Norman and eight other protesters were arrested that day. Forest Service officers arrested her again on March 14, when she joined 17 other women forming a soft blockade preventing a logging truck from crossing the same bridge. To date, 40 activists have been charged with disorderly conduct, interfering with agricultural operations and/or obstructing governmental administration; Regan is representing more than half of them through the Civil Liberties Defense Center. Only Norman remains in jail because she refuses to pay bail. The prison is noisy, the food is bad and the quarters uncomfortable, but Norman says it's worth it. "You have to stand up for something or you'll fall for anything," she says, and she hopes the arrest of the protesters will help raise awareness of the issues.
More than 100 activists — young and old, conservative and liberal — have joined in the protests against the Biscuit logging. Their primary organizer is The Oxygen Collective, a group of activists and artists who work to defend wild places using creative means. The activists camped by the Illinois River bridge until the Forest Service issued a closure and kicked them out; then they moved to BLM land, and were quickly evicted from there as well. Organizers are confident that the closures will be ruled unconstitutional, but until then, the activists keep moving.
The activists oppose the Biscuit Plan on three main fronts. First, they say, the logging operation will increase rather than reduce the fire hazard in the area. Secondly, it will hurt the area's economy by wrecking the ecosystems that bring tourists from around the world. And third, it will destroy the native forest habitat protected by law under the Northwest Forest Plan. Fire is natural, they say, but excessive logging is not: It removes the nutrient base of the future forest, accelerates erosion in to streams and harms endangered wildlife. "Logging a burned forest is like mugging a burn victim," says Eugene-based activist Jim Flynn. "There's nothing worse that you can do to it."
The Bottom Line
Forest Service employee Tom Link, the Biscuit Plan manager, admits that the logging is for economic rather than biological ends. The agency will profit approximately $5 million from the timber sales, money that Link says will be used for recovery efforts and road construction. Activists charge that the Forest Service has ignored the public will regarding how to manage the burned Biscuit areas. In December 2004, the agency opened the Biscuit Plan for public comment. They received more than 24,000 responses, 95 percent of which opposed the plan. "We extensively looked at the content analysis of those comments," Link says. "Most of them were just signatures. The substantive comments we responded to and changed our alternatives accordingly." The Forest Service pushed ahead with a mildly altered logging plan.
Although some activists describe the Biscuit Plan as the biggest-ever, worst-ever logging scheme in Forest Service history, FSEEE Executive Director Andy Stahl says that it's a continuation of the same old story. "There's nothing unusual about salvage logging," he says. "In the 1980s, the Forest Service was selling your public forests in Oregon and Washington to the tune of 5 billion board feet a year. Today, it's .5 billion board-feet — 10 percent of what was sold in the '80s."
Still, some activists describe particularly shady behavior surrounding the Biscuit Plan. The winning bidder on the Fiddler sale — a 700-acre swath of burned forest encompassing old growth reserves — was Silver Creek Timber Company, a business formed in 2002 after the Biscuit Fire. The company is run by John West, who filed for bankruptcy twice on other business ventures and has been fined for illegally logging in the Biscuit Wilderness. Now, the Forest Service has loaned him a vehicle to use for logging. "If he can put up a bid, he's a valid operator," Link says.
The Northwest Forest Plan only allows logging in old-growth reserves in the case of a "major catastrophic event" requiring human intervention to improve spotted owl habitat. And so, while admitting that economic interests were the primary motive for the logging operation, the Forest Service also claims that the Biscuit Plan will reduce the threat of future wildfires.
"This is the biggest load of shit that they're attempting to give," Regan says. She points to UC Santa Barbara professor Dennis Odion, the forestry expert who the Forest Service referenced in supporting their claim that logging would reduce future fire risk. The only problem, Regan says, is that the agency failed to consider Odion's ultimate conclusion: that logging in a burned area is the worst thing you can do to reduce the threat of wildfire, because slash piles are highly flammable.
"Over and over again, the Forest Service's actions have shown total disdain for the citizens and have bent over backwards to accommodate the timber industries," Regan says. "As a federal agency that's supposed to be working for the public, they've sided with the timber companies, and they're trying to get all the trees on the ground so that we have nothing to bitch about afterwards."
Saws Across the Nation
The Biscuit logging controversy has grabbed the attention of national media because it could portend the future direction of public forest management. "We're on the forefront of a national struggle," says Oxygen Collective spokesman Laurel Sutherlin. "The Bush administration is trying to use this project as a battering ram to try to undo decades of forest protections." The Bush administration's forest policy encourages logging in burned forests, old growth reserves and roadless areas — many of them off-limits to cutting under the Clinton administration. Bush appointee Mark Rey, who heads the Forest Service, is a former timber lobbyist whose policies encourage partnerships between the agency and industry. "The timber industry has a huge influence in Congress and the natural resource committees," Flynn says. "Even our quasi-good politicians, like DeFazio and Wyden, get money from timber. They're very firmly entrenched. You've got timber companies leaning on Congress, and Congress leans on the Forest Service. Managers get promotions based on their ability to get the cut out."
Regan says that the Biscuit timber sales will set the precedent for the nation's public forests. "This is one of the test cases for whether we're going to allow the Forest Service to log in burned areas and old growth reserves," she says. "And if we do, we could end up with a planet of stumps and desert."