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Environmentalists Fight Colville Plan To Log Scorched Trees

Nine environmental groups are fighting a Colville National Forest plan to sell firescarred timber at nearly break-even prices.

Federal tax revenues aside, conservationists claim logging 6.5 million board feet of timber - enough to frame 433 homes - would damage a roadless area.

The wood would help feed Vaagen Bros.’ starving Republic, Wash., mill, where 57 workers have been laid off since 1993 because of declining federal timber sales, plant manager Jon Newman said.

Unlike many of last summer’s devastating wildfires, the Copper Butte blaze helped the environment, the U.S. Forest Service says.

Ignited by a July lightning strike, the fire raced through 7,300 acres of federal timber. Along the way, it thinned dense, unhealthy fir stands that were stifling larger pine trees.

So, why harvest?

“One of the main purposes of the national forests is to provide commodities for the country’s use. We cut trees to provide lumber to build houses,” said Republic District ranger Pat Egan.

The scorched trees are appraised at nearly $900,000. The public’s profit would be about $15,000 after agency costs to administer the sale, she said.

Many fire salvage sales nationwide result in net losses for the Forest Service, particularly if expensive roads must be built or if helicopters are required because of fragile ecosystems. Helicopters double or triple logging costs over tractor or cable methods.

The Forest Service would turn a small profit on the Copper Butte salvage sale because it requires no new roads, Egan said.

About half of the proposed timber sale site is in the Profanity Roadless Area. But that area is designated for such public uses as timber harvesting, the ranger said.

However, the Spokane-based Inland Empire Public Lands Council said the sale would shave rare old trees from pristine hillsides while enriching industry profits, what conservationist Sara Folger calls corporate welfare.

Added biologist Evan Frost of the Bellingham-based Greater Ecosystem Alliance: “It makes no difference to the Forest Service that this fire was a natural and beneficial ecological event; its prime directive is still the same - cut it down.”

While mill manager Newman said the Forest Service could offer more timber than proposed, the agency did a good job protecting streams and staying out of a nearby wilderness area.

The Copper Butte sale is vital, Newman said, because Colville forest timber sales last year were only half of 1993’s total.

Federal foresters are reviewing public comments about the salvage sale and will decide later this spring whether to proceed or scale it down.

“No decision has been made on this yet,” Egan said.