U.S. Forest Service officials say they tried to balance competing interests in a plan that will allow loggers to remove trees killed in a massive central California wildfire last year, but environmentalists have called it a travesty and are threatening to sue.
The highly awaited decision released Wednesday will allow logging on 52 square miles of forests blackened in the Rim Fire, which burned 400 square miles of the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park's backcountry and private timber land.
It came amid a standoff between environmentalists and supporters of the timber industry over what to do with the trees that died in the fire. The blaze also destroyed 11 homes and cost more than $125 million to fight.
Susan Skalski, supervisor of the Stanislaus National Forest, said in the plan that she considered the need to reduce future fires with protecting the environment and wildlife. She took into consideration input from the public, environmental groups and the timber industry and said it was impossible for her to devise a perfect recovery plan.
"I did my best to balance all these important goals, with the intent of providing a decision that best serves the public interest,'' she said. "I realize that my decision will not please every member of the public.''
Under the proposal, about 24 square miles of the burned mountain range will be logged, as well as an additional 28 square miles along roads where trees threaten to fall and hurt people.
Officials said it is difficult to estimate the timber's value, but 210 million board feet will be harvested, enough to build about 14,000 homes. The first round of bids open next week, officials said.
Skalski said Thursday in a conference call with reporters that harvesting trees should begin this fall before rainy and snowy seasons. A Forest Service veteran of 34 years, Skalski said policy on the post-fire logging under President Obama is no different from past administrations.
"The driver is always what's best for the land,'' she said. "Sometimes you remove trees, and sometimes you just leave them.''
Environmentalists argued against logging, saying the blackened trees and new growth beneath them create vital habitat for dwindling birds such as spotted owls and black-backed woodpeckers.
"This is an ecological travesty,'' said Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and founder of the John Muir Project, an environmentalist group. "It's basically an extinction plan for the California spotted owl.''
Hanson said he is considering challenging the plan in court and has no choice but to file a federal petition seeking to list the spotted owl as endangered or threatened.
David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association, said he commends officials for producing the plan in a timely and transparent process. The association, which represents the timber industry and provided comments during development of the plan, is reviewing its details.
Taking out dead trees will also allow the public to use the land and eliminate a new fire hazard caused by the falling trees, logging supporters have said.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents the region, said he fears Forest Service officials took too long to form a recovery roadmap. The dead trees on public land in the last year have deteriorated, while those on privately held land have been mostly cut down and sent to the mills.
"They've taken so much time I'd be surprised they get any bids at all,'' McClintock said. "If they did, it's a fraction of the acreage that could have been salvaged.''
Skalski is expected to sign the logging decision Thursday, making it final.
Federal prosecutors accuse bow hunter Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, of starting the fire Aug. 17, 2013, when he lost control of an illegal campfire and had to be rescued by helicopter. A grand jury on Aug. 7 returned a four-count indictment against Emerald, who lives in the foothill community of Columbia.
Emerald, who has pleaded not guilty, was released from jail after posting a $60,000 bond.