Last Bite of the Biscuit
Tom Lavagnino is retired, but he's been wearing his old green Forest Service uniform — he calls it his "pickle suit" — a lot lately. The understaffed agency has been contracting him to lead a stream of inquiring reporters into the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest to witness the post-fire (or "salvage") logging that has caused such a hullabaloo.
It isn't the logging per se, but its location — in ancient forest reserves and protected roadless areas burned in the 2002 Biscuit Fire — that makes environmentalists howl. Protesters threw their bodies in front of logging trucks; green groups tried to stop the cutting in courts. But in the end, only time stopped any chainsaws. The Forest Service took so long carrying out the logging projects that the burned trees decayed, losing value until timber companies wouldn't bother cutting most of them. The agency's July 2004 decision had been to log 367 million board feet, but by October 2006 only 84 million board feet were cut, Lavagnino said.
On Oct. 3, as the Biscuit salvage sales come to a close, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report assessing the impacts. Here we take a look at the winners and losers.
• Taxpayers. The GAO reports a net loss of $2 million on the salvage sales, which generated $8.8 million in timber receipts but cost $10.7 million to administer. That doesn't count additional costs for restoration work such as tree planting, habitat rehabilitation and fire hazard reduction.
• Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest personnel. Between 2002 and 2005 the Forest Service cut about a third of the forest's staff, or 219 positions, placing the burden of administering the controversial project on the remaining employees. According to the GAO report, logging delays were due to an understaffed Forest Service — not environmentalists' lawsuits, as conservatives had alleged.
• The Forest Service's reputation. The GAO report had little to praise, contradicting many of the agency's own claims about the salvage project's costs, benefits and impacts on the forest ecosystem.
• Oregon State University College of Forestry's reputation. Suspicion was first cast on the college in July 2003, when OSU forestry engineer John Sessions published a report suggesting that 2 billion board feet of timber — 20 times the Forest Service's draft recommendation — could be cut from the Biscuit burn. Forest supervisor Scott Conroy used the report to nearly quadruple the Biscuit logging plans. Then, in January 2006, college dean Hal Salwasser conspired with timber industry insiders in an attempt to discredit a grad student's report showing that Biscuit salvage logging killed seedlings and increased fire hazard. The debacle, unearthed by state Sen. Charlie Ringo through a public records request, shook the college's reputation as a place for free academic inquiry.
• Forest ecology. As the OSU grad student's study showed, salvage logging has set back the forest's natural regeneration, likely damaging salmon and spotted owl habitat. And because the Biscuit project put taxpayers $2 million in the red, restoration work such as revegetation and wildlife enhancements will be minimal to none, as reported by the GAO. "No, we're not restoring," Lavagnino confirmed. "Harvesting is not restoration."
• Green protesters. Members of The Oxygen Collective initially tried to keep loggers out of the Biscuit through nonviolent bridge blockades and tree sits. But the Forest Service swiftly closed strategic protest areas, and the demonstrations eventually fizzled out. That absence was evident in late September as Lavagnino drove over the vacant Green Bridge, where earlier protests had stalled logging operations. "They've given up, admitted defeat," he said.
• Green litigators. Environmental organizations filed six lawsuits over the Biscuit salvage project and lost five outright, winning only one multi-state suit challenging the Bush administration's repeal of the 2001 Roadless Rule. But even in that case, Federal Judge Elizabeth Laporte refused to halt the last remaining Biscuit roadless logging projects, ruling that Silver Creek Timber Co. would suffer "serious economic harm" if it couldn't keep logging. Green groups' failure to legally block even the most controversial Biscuit salvage sales suggests that they would be better served by tightening up the laws than by trying to defend them in court.
• Columbia Helicopters. Columbia, a major GOP donor, was awarded lucrative Biscuit salvage contracts to do helicopter yarding on steep slopes and in roadless areas, where logs can't be hauled out by truck. This appears to be a well-planned windfall: The company donated $1 million to OSU after professor Sessions' report plugged helicopter yarding for expanded Biscuit salvage. An EW records request revealed that Columbia Vice President Max Merlich was in contact with both OSU College of Forestry Dean Hal Salwasser and U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey regarding Biscuit.
• OSU College of Forestry funding. Beyond the big gift from Columbia, the college raked in funds from all sides of the Biscuit controversy. Ecosystem scientists received federal grants to study the post-fire forest ecosystem, while forestry engineers were commissioned to study Biscuit for the timber industry. To top it off, the college received a cut of the revenue from every board foot of timber sold.
• The firefighting arm of the Forest Service. Thanks to decades of fire suppression in the Siskiyous and other national forests, wildfires burn bigger and hotter than ever before. Firefighting now makes up 40 percent of the Forest Service budget, up from 25 percent in 2000, while the rest of the agency takes deep cuts.
Too soon to call
• The future of public forestry. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a southern Oregon Republican, sponsored a bill that uses Biscuit to argue for accelerated logging after natural disturbances. The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act, which would erode America's strongest environmental policy law, passed through the House and is now before the Senate. The Siskiyou Project's Rolf Skar doubts that the Senate will approve the bill on its own merits, but he suspects that Republicans may try to attach it as a rider to a budget bill during Congress' lame duck session this fall.
• The Republican Party. It's hard to assess whether the Biscuit controversy worked for or against its GOP architects. The fuss began around the 2004 election season, when southern Oregon represented swing counties in a swing state. Soon President Bush was talking about the need to ramp up logging in public forests, alluding to timber jobs for rural residents.
• The southwest Oregon economy. Forest Service estimates that Biscuit salvage logging would create almost 7,000 local jobs were over-optimistic, but it's too soon to have concrete figures, the GAO report concluded.
• The fate of public roadless forests. Judge Laporte's early October ruling nullified Bush's 2005 State Petitions Rule and reinstated Clinton's 2001 Roadless Rule, once again prohibiting commercial logging in the nation's 58 million acres of roadless forests (except for the Biscuit sales). But Clinton's rule may soon be repealed by a Wyoming court, according to Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles. In the meantime, the Bush administration will continue to accept state petitions to log roadless areas, processing them under a federal law that lets states propose new rules.
• Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. As part of the victorious multi-state lawsuit against the Bush administration, the guv may have scored major public points for defending Oregon's roadless acres. But gubernatorial challenger Ron Saxton is calling for more logging in public forests, a not-so-subtle attack on Kulongoski's stand.
Winners and losers aside, the lingering question is why the Forest Service chose the path of most resistance. In the end, the final Biscuit salvage volume of 84 million board feet was close to the forest staff's draft recommendation of 105 million board feet. But much of the final cut came from ancient and roadless forest stands, rather than from mixed-use (or "matrix") areas as recommended.
"It's ironic," said Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics Director Andy Stahl. "You get the identical volume, but you do it in more controversial lands." Why? Stahl speculated that the Forest Service wants to expand logging in ancient forest reserves "and to thumb their nose at the roadless initiative."
But Lavagnino offered other reflections as he navigated sharp twists in the logging road, yellow and black butterflies disappearing under the tires. "I think we're all fighting for the same cause, from [environmentalists] to the timber beasts," he said. "But it's like a religion — you're not gonna change anyone's mind."
The battle over post-fire logging is sure to continue, but the Biscuit chapter, at least, appears to be over. And Lavagnino seems relieved that, at long last, he can retire his pickle suit.