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Forest Service and Environmentalists Settle Logging Dispute
JIM ROBBINS . NY Times . 08 february 2002

HELENA, Mont., Feb. 7 - After nearly three days of court-ordered negotiations, the United States Forest Service agreed to reduce substantially the size of a timber sale on large tracts of the Bitterroot National Forest that burned in wildfires in 2000. In exchange, environmentalists agreed to end their appeals on the remaining acreage and allow logging to take place.

``We are going to move ahead immediately,'' and allow local companies to start cutting timber, said Rodd Richardson, the Bitterroot forest supervisor.

United States Attorney Bill Mercer, who defended the government and took part in the negotiations, said, ``The ability to immediately harvest dead trees and pursue forest restoration'' would bring certainty to the people of Western Montana.

Tim Preso, a lawyer for EarthJustice in Bozeman, Mont., who negotiated for environmental groups, said the outcome should show the Forest Service that ``we will fight for every acre on these wildlands.''

Under the agreement, about 14,000 acres will be logged. The Forest Service originally sought to allow logging on 41,000 acres.

The Forest Service said the timber sale was secondary to the larger goal of helping the land heal after the fires and heading off the potential of widespread erosion and more fires as the burned trees fell and became fuel again. Environmentalists said the logging would cause widespread erosion and damage to streams that are home to the federally protected bull trout. They said the sales were evidence of the Bush administration's appeasement of industry with publicly owned resources.

In seeking to sell timber from 41,000 acres of forest that had burned, the agency said the timber needed to be cut before it lost its value and while the ground was frozen to minimize damage to forest soils during logging, so they tried to hasten the sale by skipping an administrative appeal.

Environmentalists sued, saying that skipping the appeals process was illegal. Judge Donald Molloy of Federal District Court granted their request for a restraining order in December.

After the Forest Service asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow five emergency timber sales, Judge Molloy ordered mediation, which was overseen by Chief Judge Michael Hogan of Oregon. Participants included Mark Rey, under secretary for the Agriculture Department; Dale Bosworth, the Forest Service chief; Mr. Richardson; and representatives for the Wilderness Society, EarthJustice and other environmental groups.

In the end, the Forest Service agreed to remove most of the roadless land from logging. It also removed areas that environmentalists said were important habitat for the bull trout and the west slope cutthroat trout. That reduced the the amount of timber cut to about 60 million board feet from 176 million board feet.

Federal officials said they were pleased with the outcome. ``No one got everything they wanted,'' Mr. Richardson said, ``but everybody got some of what they wanted.''

Mr. Preso, of EarthJustice, said, ``This was a test case on the nature of an appropriate response to a large-scale wildfire.'' He added, ``Roadless areas are off the table as far as we're concerned.''