Western fires delay logging

Lumber companies worried

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— Difficulty reaching the timber, forest fires blazing across the West and an appeal filed by environmentalists have slowed logging in the North Fork area of the Routt National Forest north of Steamboat Springs. Removal of some blowndown trees planned for this summer may have to wait a full year, Forest Service officials and owners of logging companies say.

Two North Fork sections called Downdraft and Jet Stream totaling about 1,400 acres above the Slavonia trailhead northeast of Clark are filled with dead timber that was felled by high winds. The trouble for loggers is getting to the timber. Another salvage logging operation that was to be done by helicopter, the 400-acre Zephyr sale, has been delayed by an appeal from environmentalists.

The areas identified for logging are part of what's called the Routt Divide Blowdown, an area of forest encompassing about 13,000 acres that was devastated by a windstorm in October 1997. Winds in excess of 130 mph rushed over the Continental Divide from the east, knocking over or uprooting hundreds of thousands of trees.

The Forest Service plans to salvage log areas in the blowdown over the course of three summers. Because most of the devastated acreage is part of land dedicated to wilderness preservation, only about 3,000 acres are available for salvage.

Logging in the North Fork part of the forest, however, hasn't progressed much past 40 percent since the beginning of the summer, said Andy Cadenhead of the Forest Service.

This summer is the second of the three planned for logging. But despite delays, Forest Service officials say they are only slightly behind the original schedule.

The delays can be blamed on a few main problems, the first being that blowdown areas in general are tough to log because the fallen trees end up stacked on top of each other, making removal especially difficult.

Because parts of the North Fork area are roadless, logs in those areas must be removed by helicopter. Both the Forest Service and logging companies use the same helicopter subcontractors, forest officials said, and, because of the wildfires burning throughout the West, most of those helicopters are tied up.

"This season's been bad," said Kent Strong, co-owner of K&K Lumber Co. in Silt. "All the helicopters have got us on hold for another year."

Although they will complete the tractor logging they had intended to do by the end of this summer, K&K employees will have to wait a full year to take other North Fork logs out by helicopter. That delay has Strong worried.

For one thing, he said, the wood will deteriorate over the winter and some of it will be relatively worthless come next summer. Already, some of the blowndown trees have begun to break down because of exposure to the elements.

"We've started to see the logs deteriorate a little this summer, but that was what we'd expected," Cadenhead said.

On a positive note for loggers, spruce beetles, which are predicted to reach epidemic numbers in coming years, have not significantly damaged the felled trees yet.

Still, Strong is worried that he may lose a lot of North Fork lumber by next year.

Also, due to the cost of the helicopters, removing the logs may end up being a money-losing endeavor for the company.

"The Forest Service miscalculated," Strong said. "We're getting only about half of the volume we were supposed to get."

Cadenhead admitted that his agency overestimated the number of trees available in the North Fork area, but explained that officials had warned potential loggers of that possibility.

"It's really difficult to make an accurate estimate in the case of blowdowns," Cadenhead said. "We made it clear that the accuracy of the count was not up to our normal standards."

If K&K fails to remove the logs, the contract it has with the Forest Service will be broken. In that case, the federal agency can reoffer the sale to another logging company and make K&K responsible for the costs.

The Zephyr area is the last of the North Fork blowdown areas to be contracted to loggers, but an appeal by environmentalists' has slowed that process.

"Because it's in a roadless area, even though the logs would be removed by helicopter, it would still leave a scar that would be visible and noticeable for a long time," said Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild.

"A lot of people think that we should leave that wood on the ground," responded Kim Vogel of the Forest Service. "On the other hand, we think that a number of wildlife species and recreation would benefit from clearing the area."

The appeal, which is being heard by the Forest Service's regional office in Denver, is expected to be decided by the end of this week, forest officials said.

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