Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

News Advisory July 11, 2002

Contact: Kieran Suckling 520-623-5252 x305
More Information: Center's Fire and Ecosystem Health web



The Forest Service released a report on July 9, 2002 which it billed as proving that environmentalists are obstructing forest thinning projects and thus endangering rural communities with wildfire. Close inspection of the report, however, shows exactly the opposite conclusion: environmentalists supported the thinning and burning of small trees and focused their opposition on the logging of old growth trees, roadless areas far from human communities, and the habitat of endangered species.

Exploiting the suffering caused by recent forest fires, the Bush administration, the timber industry and conservative congressmen have argued that the fires were caused by lack of logging, and that environmental regulations are to blame for slowing down the timber program. But they been stymied by a widely circulated U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) study which found that only one percent of 1,671 Forest Service fuels reductions projects were appealed in 2001 and none were litigated. This GAO report has been a thorn in the administration's side because it confirms the claims of environmentalists that they have not opposed legitimate thinning projects.

To counter the GAO report, the U.S. Forest Service issued a report on July 9, 2002 which came to a radically different conclusion: 48% of 326 "mechanical fuel treatment project" (i.e. timber sales) were appealed by environmental groups in 2000 and 2001; 6% were litigated. Representative Scott McInnis (R-CO) was quoted in the Denver Post (7/10/02) saying the GAO report was flawed and that the new Forest Service report is more thorough. The Post took the Forest Service report at face value, leading its story with the following:

"Nearly half of the U.S. Forest Service's attempts to cut the underbrush that fuels catastrophic wildfires such as the Hayman blaze have been delayed by environmental appeals, according to an internal Forest Service report obtained by The Denver Post."

But were half of all "underbrush" thinning projects really appealed? Does the Forest Service report really contradict the GAO study? And how can the Forest Service report claim to be more thorough if it identified only 326 thinning projects in two years while the GAO study found 1,671 in just one year?

Closer inspection shows that the Forest Service report uses a completely different, and much more limited data set than the GAO report; that the two reports are quite consistent; and that taken together, they demonstrate that environmentalists consistently oppose logging of old growth forests, roadless areas, and endangered species habitat, and consistently support the burning and thinning of small trees near communities at risk from forest fire.

The GAO report looked at a very specific universe of fuels reduction projects: all projects funded by the Forest Service in 2001 with the $205 million allocated by Congress specifically for fuels reduction. Virtually all of these were legitimate burning and thinning projects which targeted small trees and communities at risk. For this reason they were uncontroversial and thus the Forest Service was able to conduct a large number of projects (1,671) with very few appeals (20) and no litigation. It got work done on the ground.

The recent Forest Service report, on the other hand, looks mostly at traditional timber sales and a few large prescribed burns. Most did not qualify for the Congressional fuels reductions fund. For this reason, there is little overlap between the projects studies by the GAO and the Forest Service. The Forest Service found a much higher level of opposition (48% appealed, 6% litigated) because the timber sales were not legitimate thinning projects. Most involve the logging of old growth trees, the logging of wildland areas dozens of miles from the nearest town, or logging within endangered species habitat.

The Forest Service report, therefore, is not more thorough than the GAO report, nor does it contradict it. The reports are perfectly consistent. Taken cumulatively, they confirm exactly what environmentalists across the West have been stating: if the Forest Service conducts legitimate, small tree burning and thinning near human communities, it will not face opposition and will be able to get work done on the ground; if it continues its traditional timber sale program to log old growth trees, roadless areas, or endangered species habitat, it will face intense opposition.

The proof of this lies not only in the GAO report, but within the Forest Service report itself. According the report, most (52%) of the traditional projects were not appealed. What did these projects look like and why weren't they appealed? The Center for Biological Diversity identified five projects on the Coconino National Forest in 2000 and 2001 that were included in the Forest Service report that were not challenged: four were timber sales combined with prescribed burns focusing on small trees less than 12" in diameter, the fifth was a large prescribed burn. These projects were not challenged because, unlike the traditional timber sales, they were legitimate fuels reduction projects.

What did the projects which were challenged look like? The Center for Biological Diversity appeal two timber sales on the Kaibab National Forest (East Rim and Dry Park timber sales) which would have logged thousands of large trees. Neither sale was adjacent to human community. It appealed the Baca Timber Sale on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. This sale would have high-graded the few remaining large trees in a landscape already hammered by fifty years of intense logging. Though 96% of the trees in the Baca Timber sale were under 12" in diameter, the Forest Service planned to log 26% of its timber volume from trees over 16" in diameter. The Center also appealed the Sheep Basin Timber Sale on the Gila National Forest. This sale was collaboratively planned as a small tree thinning project by the Center, the Forest Service, and logging interests. At the last minute, however, over the objections of both the environmentalists and the logging interests, the Forest Service decided not to conduct Sheep Basin as restoration project. It rescinded the ban on cutting large trees, needlessly inciting opposition and appeals.

By lumping good and bad projects together and issuing a blanket complaint that 48% were appealed, the Forest Service report purposefully obscures the interest and effects of the environmental advocates. A simple division of the projects into old growth timber sales and small three thinning projects reveals a very telling trend: the former almost always appealed, the later are almost never appealed.

Finally, the Forest Service report conveniently fails to mention the outcome of the appeals and litigation. The Center for Biological Diversity's analysis shows that about 50% of the appeals and 40% of the litigation are successful, for a total success rate of 70%. The appeals victories are especially significant because the Forest Service is itself the judge of appeals. That the Forest Service so often judges its own timber sales to be illegal is very telling. In most cases, the timber sale is adjusted (making it smaller, taking less or no old growth trees, staying out of roadless areas, etc.) and is then reissued. Appeals therefore, most often do not completely stop timber sales, they simply make them less damaging.


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