Salvage Logging in Duncan Canyon?

During the two weeks leading up to September 11, 2001, the Star Fire roared through steep canyons south of the Middle Fork of the American River in Placer County. The fire scorched more than 16,000 acres, including Duncan Canyon, a designated “Roadless” stretch of Tahoe National Forest. Home to huge sugar pines, incense cedars, and other old-growth conifers, the canyon is one of the last examples of pristine mid-level forest in the Sierra Nevada, and a critical habitat for spotted owls, northern goshawks, and even wolverines. Now the burnt-out trees of Duncan Canyon are the subject of a legal dispute over whether commercial loggers can enter protected lands in the name of fire safety.
In the aftermath of the fire, the Forest Service proposed to solicit bids for a private helicopter harvest of the canyon to reduce the risk of future fires. Opponents argue that logging-for-profit is inconsistent with forest health, as only the biggest, most valuable logs are removed, while the more flammable underbrush and small-diameter trees are left behind. Conservation groups contend that the loss of large dead trees would damage existing habitat and that a logging project might deprive Duncan Canyon of its protected status. Says Sierra Club attorney Aaron Isherwood, “When you’ve logged once, it’s easier to log again.”
If the Forest Service succeeds in promoting a harvest in Duncan Canyon, it will have widened a loophole in the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. This Clinton-era administrative order secures 58.5 million acres of undeveloped forest (or two percent of the United States) from commercial development, except under very special circumstances. A roadless area is subject to logging only when it “maintains or improves” the forest—by reducing hazardous fuels, for example, or restoring wildlife habitat—and only when the timber being removed is “of generally small diameter.” Whether the logging in Duncan Canyon fits these criteria is the central issue in a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club, the John Muir Project, and the Center for Biological Diversity. A legal outcome on what conservationists call “the loophole in the Roadless Rule” could have important consequences for commercial logging projects in roadless areas. “If a court were to rule that this logging is consistent with the Roadless Rule,” warns Isherwood, “it would potentially open the loophole in a way that was never intended.”
In July, a federal judge in Sacramento issued a temporary restraining order blocking the proposal. With the fast approach of winter snow, even this delay could mean de facto victory for the environmentalists. Rot and desiccation have already depreciated the lumber, and another season under snow would render it commercially worthless. “Even at this point in time,” says Rich Johnson, district forest ranger, “we might not get a bidder…and it wouldn’t be feasible to do it ourselves.” Environmental groups say they’ll push ahead with the lawsuit all the same. A decisive victory in the courtroom—in the form of an official ruling that logging would violate the Roadless Rule—would set a legal precedent and strengthen roadless protection throughout the country.

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