Fear and Logging in Tahoe
When the Forest Service claimed that its Red Star Timber Sale in
a roadless area of the Tahoe National Forest would reduce the risk
of fire through “forest thinning,” its actual plan,
says Sierra Club attorney Aaron Isherwood, called for cutting the
largest trees and leaving behind large amounts of highly combustible
“slash” debris, such as branches, brush, and tree tops.
Sounds like creating a fire hazard, not reducing one, doesn’t
it? So said the Sierra Club, John Muir Project, and other environmental
groups when they sued the Forest Service to stop the Red Star sale
back in 2002. And so agreed the Bush-appointed Judge Morris England,
who issued a preliminary injunction against the sale on August 20,
ruling that the logging project was illegal.
In the end, Forest Service attorneys admitted that they planned
to log large diameter trees in the Duncan Canyon area, and leave
85 tons per acre of flammable debris behind. Judge England pointed
out that 85 tons was more than double the amount of slash that the
agency’s own scientific studies said would cause an extreme
fire hazard. And leaving such large quantities of slash, he said,
“could lead to a situation that would create bonfire-style
combustion across the landscape.”
Which begs the question, “Why?” The Red Star case points
to a disturbing answer, to a pattern within the Bush administration
of exploiting legitimate fears of fire in communities near forests
in order to gain access to protected forests.
“Their strategy is to scare the hell out of everybody,”
Isherwood says. “They tell everyone that fires will take their
homes without logging, but instead of removing brush and small trees
near communities at risk, they are logging ancient forests in remote
parts of the backcountry to reward their campaign-contributing friends
in the timber industry.”
The Red Star case illustrates just how tight those ties to the
timber industry are, influencing judgment in the Bush administration
to the point of putting people in harm’s way. “It’s
unconscionable,” says Isherwood. “The Bush administration
is claiming to help communities even as it knowingly puts people
So Judge England’s decision has environmentalists cheering,
but not only because the injunction has stopped the Red Star project.
His ruling has also created an important precedent as the first
decision to stop a logging project that violated the Roadless
Area Conservation Rule.
The Roadless Rule was issued in January 2001 to protect 58.5 million
acres of national forest land from commercial logging and road-building.
That still leaves two-thirds of America’s national forests
open to logging and other industries, but on July 12, the Bush administration
announced a proposal to repeal the Roadless Rule, in effect putting
the last third of the nation’s wild forests at risk. (Read
more about the Roadless Rule status here).
Ironically, Duncan Canyon has already lost thousands of acres of
forest as a result of the Star Fire in 2001—a fire that started
because slash was left behind by a commercial logging operation.
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