Judge blocks logging of burned trees

Published March 1, 2002

Market-friendly environmentalists suffered a second defeat as a federal district judge on January 8 blocked a Bush administration decision to allow logging on more than 40,000 acres of burned trees in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest.

Large areas of the forest were singed or burned to the ground during fires in 2000. As a result, agriculture undersecretary Mark Rey on December 16 signed an administrative order allowing loggers to clear the forest of the charred and rotting trees. While such administrative orders would normally be preceded by a prolonged period of public comment and debate, Rey determined the normal processes would cause the burned trees to degrade, rot, and lose their value before logging could ensue.

“We are using mechanisms included in the appeals process, as they have been used before, in what I view to be a rare circumstance where that’s justified,” said Rey.

A number of anti-market environmental groups challenged Rey’s order in federal court, claiming the order illegally short-circuited the public comment period. Federal District Judge Donald Molly agreed.

“It is presumptuous to believe that the agency’s final decision has a perfection about it that would not be illuminated by interested comment, questioning, or requests for justification of propositions asserted in it,” wrote Molly.

“The precipitous action here in electing to take the law into its own hands will cause the very difficulty the agency reasons it is trying to avoid,” the judge added.

Although federal forest officials determined that recovery of the burned timber would be instrumental in preventing future forest fires, anti-market activist groups clearly did not wish to see timber companies turn a profit from any form of logging, including from logging singed and dead trees.

EarthJustice lawyer Doug Honnold protested that if Rey’s decision had taken effect, it would have propped up a reeling timber industry “under the guise of responding to a forest fire.” Added Honnold, “This plan was one-stop shopping for the Forest Service to reinstate a dying industry and get the loggers back in the woods.”

Supporters of the logging noted, however, that harvesting the burned and rotting trees would not only remove a potential catalyst for future fires, but would alleviate the need to harvest healthy trees elsewhere. Moreover, harvesting the dead trees would create a boon for loggers and the local economy.

The burned trees would provide 181 million board feet of lumber, enough to fill log trucks lined up end to end for over 300 miles. By comparison, a total of only 83 million board feet of lumber was harvested from the Bitterroot National Forest from 1990 to 1999.