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Eugene Weekly : News : 01.19.06

Q&A

Rich Fairbanks

Former Forest Service team leader, Bisquit salvage plan

By Kera Abraham

In 2002, the Biscuit Fire burned 500,000 acres of the Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon. The Forest Service adopted a plan to log 372 million board feet from the burned areas, the largest salvage logging operation in the agency's recent history. Predictably, environmentalists filed several lawsuits challenging the plan, and activists protested at the logging sites. The U.S. Forest Service claimed that the ecosystem needed aggressive logging to regenerate and reduce future fire hazard, and that the local economy needed the timber. Environmentalists argued the opposite: that salvage logging in the Siskiyou would hinder the forest's ability to recover, increase the future fire hazard and end up losing money. [See EW articles, 3/31/05 and 8/11/05.]

The Bush administration supported the USFS's approach, creating a loophole to allow timber sales to move forward despite public appeals. A federal judge in Wyoming ruled that the USFS could allow logging in roadless areas, and a federal judge in Oregon ruled that the timber industry's economic interest trumped environmental concerns about logging during the rainy season. In 2003, Bush signed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which allows the USFS to aggressively log old-growth public forests; Sen. Ron Wyden supported that bill. Congress is poised to consider Rep. Greg Walden's Forest Emergency and Recovery Act, which would allow the USFS to waive the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) after natural weather events. Sen. Gordon Smith introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Now, science is coming down on the side of the environmentalists. On Jan. 5, the journal Science published an OSU study showing that logging hurt, rather than helped, forest recovery, and that salvage logging can increase, rather than decrease, fire hazard. A week later, a World Wildlife Fund economic analysis showed that the Biscuit salvage lost more than $9 million in taxpayer dollars. Actual timber harvest to date, much of it cut from old growth areas, falls far short of 372 million board feet.

If the salvage did not help the ecology of the Siskiyou National Forest nor the economy of the surrounding community, why was the USFS hell-bent on doing it?

Rich Fairbanks, a forester with 32 years experience with the USFS, offers some answers. Fairbanks, 53, retired from the USFS in April 2005 and now works as an independent contractor. He will speak in the Eugene Public Library's Bascom Room at 6 pm on Jan. 25. The event, sponsored by the Cascadia Wildlands Project, is free and open to the public.

What was your role in developing the Biscuit salvage logging plan?

I led a team of 17 people in collecting and interpreting a bunch of data about the burn. Between them, they had about 200 years experience in the Siskiyou. We developed an Environmental Impact Statement and a set of alternatives for managing the burn that complied with all kinds of federal laws: NEPA, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Migratory Bird Act.

Tell me about the plan you presented to the forest supervisor, Scott Conroy, and his reaction to it.

The first set of alternatives that we developed would have cut from five to 105 million board feet of timber, most of them near roads or in matrix areas that are already involved in plantation forestry. And the regional office — remember, this is an election year — came back and said, "No, we need one alternative that cuts at least a billion board feet." And they did that, in part, because of something called the Sessions report.

What is the Sessions report?

The Sessions report was prepared by John Sessions, a forest engineering professor at the OSU School of Forestry, and two retired college professors. It was commissioned by Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, who is a very conservative Republican and an operator in Oregon Republican politics. He gave Sessions $25,000 of county taxpayers' money to prepare the report. So Sessions came down and used models, no actual data, to make a prediction that two billion board feet could be cut from the Biscuit. He also said that unless a fairly large-scale herbicide spraying program were implemented, we would not get decent conifer regeneration. It was pseudo-scientific, but it was a polemic, shrilly espousing these forestry practices from the '50s and '60s that I thought we had left behind. I mean, a large-scale spraying program in an area where brush is the most natural thing in the world and where plantation forestry is known to be not that effective? He didn't understand the basic ecology down here.

The regional office used the Sessions report to force you and your team to re-write your report. Is that unusual?

It's not that unusual. They want a certain amount of timber volume because, well, the Forest Service is fiber-holic. They're hooked, man. So the regional office ordered us to find at least a billion board feet. Fine. We said that it would take about three months to prepare these alternatives. That meant we would lose an operating season, and millions of board feet would be lost to deterioration. I pointed that out to one of the staff people in the regional foresters' offices, and the staff consulted with the powers that be and returned to me and said, "Rich, they don't care about volume. They don't care about the rot." That was my first clue that this was an election-year thing, which is pretty ugly when you think about it.

What did the Biscuit salvage plan have to do with the 2004 elections?

What they were really saying was, "We don't give a shit about the local economy, much less restoration forestry. We're into this to get the Republicans re-elected." It wasn't about volume; it wasn't about forest restoration; it wasn't about economics. It was about votes and the impression that the environmentalists were holding up the logging and being wasteful. They thought there was political advantage to be gained by ramping up the stakes on Biscuit. I think they were trying to get their voters out, and they thought this would help.

So you agreed to find at least a billion board feet in the Biscuit salvage area. How did you inflate the numbers?

Most of this was going to be helicopter logging. Originally I had proposed that we yard a mile or less, because if you yard more than a mile, you're probably losing money. Well, we vetoed that. It's very interesting to me that after the Sessions report came out, the wife of Wes Lematta, the founder of Columbia Helicopters, gave $1 million to the OSU School of Forestry. Including roadless areas, late successional reserves and matrix lands, we came up with an alternative that cut a billion board feet and an alternative that cut 518 million board feet, and we published a draft in October of 2003.

What was the forest supervisor's final decision?

He chose the alternative that cut 518 million, then reduced the volume down to 372 million board feet for a variety of reasons, mainly because the wood wasn't there. But the more rational alternatives were around 100 million board feet.

And the final proposal looked reasonable in comparison to a billion board feet.

That was the idea: "We'll make a ridiculously inflated initial estimate, then we'll say, 'Look how reasonable we are by reducing it.'" Then when it turns out that most of the wood is not there, they'll say, "That's because the environmentalists held it up for so long and let it rot." I wouldn't want to say Karl Rove worked on it, but somebody who thinks like him did.

Do you think that the political charade worked?

There were full-page ads taken out in The Oregonian right around the election by an industry front group called Project Protect, led by a former PR guy from Georgia Pacific, that said "We have to log the Biscuit!" People really thought all that wood was going to waste and it was a disgrace — and the Republicans also thought it would get 'em some votes.

Why did you take early retirement?

They wanted me gone for years. I was very active in the union; I’m an environmentalist; I was one of the people who started Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. The day the Biscuit plan went to the printer, they said, “You’re not working on this project anymore. Go find a detail, preferably somewhere out of state.” It was a downsizing environment, and there were so many people hanging on by their fingernails. I just was happy to go. I’d had enough; I did not want to work for George Bush for another three years.

Is there anything that you saw happening in this deal that the public doesn’t know?

It was probably a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits a civil servant from making decisions that will help somebody get elected. Every year they would remind us union officials, “If you do something that helps a partisan candidate, you could be fired.” I would argue that they certainly violated that act, because a lot of this stuff appears calculated to stir up the faithful. It could not possibly have been done for the good of the forest or local communities. They really polarized the community, and for what? The wood that we got out of Biscuit we could just as easily have been gotten by thinning the second growth down low and maybe reducing some of the fire hazard.

Are there internal pressures pushing Forest Service leaders to aggressively log public lands?

I know a half dozen forest supervisors who have lacked enthusiasm for getting out the cut, and they left or took early retirement. And I know a number of district rangers who became forest supervisors who were very willing to bend rules and threaten people to get the cut out. And they all moved up the ladder.

Are people working from within the Forest Service to change the agency?

People have been trying to reform the Forest Service for as long as I’ve been working for them, and unfortunately, I have not seen a lot of success. The Bush administration tells lies about forest management issues and repeats them often enough, hoping that eventually people will believe them. They’ve been caught an number of times, and now of course they’re being caught on Biscuit. But they’re gonna continue to say that forests don’t regenerate naturally after fires. That’s the “white-people-got-here-just-in-time” school of forest management. It’s so arrogant, I can’t believe people even say that. But they’re gonna keep doing this forest restoration scam, and they’ll get away with it.

Is there any merit to the idea that salvage logging can help a burned forest recover?

I think there’s merit to the idea that the logs that can be taken to the mill and made into something useful without being a deficit to the taxpayer or some sort of corporate welfare. But those logs are right near the roads and in areas that are already allocated by law to timber production. There’s a vast amount of land where none of those conditions apply, and because so much of this current wave of big fires is occurring in dry mixed conifer forests, you’ve got a tremendous problem making them economical. And this is an underlying question that needs to be asked: Why are we having all of these really big fires, and are we pursuing a fire management policy that creates these huge black landscapes? There used to be these very mellow, low-severity fires every few years that kept things cleared out. And I think that is something that the Bush administration and the Forest Service would like to distract us from. See, 100,000 acres of Biscuit re-burned only 13 years after the Silver fire. Yet there was another huge fire in the same place, and it burned just as hot where they salvaged as where they didn’t.

If it’s neither ecologically nor economically beneficial, why does the Forest Service insist on salvage logging?

The industry gets some pretty good prices. Burnt timber goes real cheap. The Forest Service generally gets to keep just about all of the money generated from those sales; they don’t have to give it back to the U.S. Treasury because so much of it goes into trust funds. And they often generate some money from the taxpayers because they sold the timber so cheap that they couldn’t recuperate their costs. But a big part of it is ideology. People have it in their minds that burnt timber is wasted, and I think there’s some incentive to salvage just for that reason. Even if it loses money, people can’t stand to think of wood rotting when it can be made into boards that people use. I can sympathize with that. I don’t happen to agree with it, because I think most forests do better most of the time when we leave them alone, and that is especially true after fires.

Do you think that the Biscuit controversy was a set-up for federal laws that would roll back restrictions on logging?

The Walden bill [Forest Emergency and Recovery and Research Act, HR 4200] is one of the most misguided pieces of legislation I’ve seen in a long time. It departs completely from the science. On the other hand, there’s a countervailing trend: Because of Biscuit and a number of other fires, people are saying, “We need to learn to live with fire.” They’re gonna try to put through some laws, but I see a lot of people who are aware that the kinds of policies that Walden is proposing just don’t work.