- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

Environmental groups are suing the Bush administration to block the removal of charred trees from a forest ravaged by fires last summer.
The Forest Service is expediting a timber-salvage program on 44,000 acres of the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana to remove the potential fuel before the next fire season.
"The reason we would like to act expeditiously is we know the amount of dead, and by next summer desiccated, timber will itself represent a separate fire hazard," said Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey.
The Wilderness Society and American Wildlands filed suit on Dec. 18 to block removal of the dead trees, saying the public comment period was not sufficient and violated federal law and the Forest Service's own regulations.
"This move sets a terrible precedent and is part of the administration's larger agenda to roll back environmental protections and shut the people out of the process," said Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies regional director for the Wilderness Society.
But Mr. Rey said the timber-salvage project will not set a precedent, although it "does represent an exception and not the rule."
"Immediate implementation of the projects will reduce unacceptable risks to public safety, private property and the National Forest System resources," Mr. Rey said.
"I am confident in the Forest Service's continued commitment to providing the maximum opportunities possible to engage the public in these critical recovery projects," Mr. Rey said. "Additionally, these restoration projects provide significant local economic-benefit opportunities."
Environmentalists cited a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review of the project that said "increased stream sedimentation from salvage timber harvest and connected activities is anticipated to adversely affect and likely result in harming or impairing feeding and sheltering patterns of adult and juvenile bull trout."
The presence of bull trout severely hampered firefighting efforts last summer in the Bitterroot forest.
The Bitterroot fires burned more than 300,000 acres, or 20 percent of the forest's 1.5 million acres. The fires also forced the evacuation of 1,500 area residents.
The damage was extensive partly because environmental regulations meant to protect plants, streams and fish restricted the use of fire retardant and bulldozers to fight Western fires.
Moreover, firefighters said they were stopped from pumping water out of creeks to fight the blazes lest the pumping injure the trout. Yet the extreme heat boiled the water and converted it into steam, leaving the streams dry and the fish dead.
"It's absolutely ridiculous the way they are doing this," one firefighter said.
Another firefighter said the refusal to allow fire retardant near Philipsburg, Mont., because of the threat to bull trout allowed that fire to grow to 42,000 acres.
The Sierra Club also opposes salvaging the timber, saying the logs should stay put because downed and burned trees reduce erosion and provide habitat for woodpeckers.
"This project will cause impacts that affect the forest for years to come and ignores the 4,400 citizen comments that opposed the timber sale," said Jennifer Ferenstein, president of the Sierra Club. "This decision gives the concerned citizen no other alternative than to take the Forest Service to court."
Alisa Harrison, Agriculture Department spokeswoman, would not comment on the lawsuit except to say "the decision to litigate is regrettable."

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