<I>Rodeo-Chediski</I><BR>Judge allows clearing of trees that fire killed<BR>
PHOENIX — A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that the U.S. Forest Service can begin salvaging some of the trees burned by a huge fire that also destroyed hundreds of homes in eastern Arizona a year ago.
The Forest Service contends that it needs to allow salvage logging on approximately 37,000 acres to remove fuel for future fires in the area that the Rodeo-Chediski fire burned in the summer of 2002.
Conservationists had challenged the Forest Service's three planned projects, arguing that the Forest Service had misused environmental laws.
U.S. District Judge Frederick Martone ruled that the agency has leeway under federal law to proceed without conducting environmental reviews for two projects.
Those two projects involve trees on nearly 18,000 acres in the vicinity of administrative sites and developed recreation areas and along roads, trails, utility lines and fences.
Martone ruled that a third project also can proceed but only if the Forest Service simultaneously prepares an environmental assessment. That project involves trees on 19,364 acres within a half-mile of private land boundaries.
The scope of that project exceeds an exemption to the requirement for environmental assessments, Martone wrote in his ruling. "No amount of stretching can make it fit."
However, with the continued drought and the likelihood that the dead trees will lose their market value if not salvaged within the next six months, "the balance tips in favor" against issuing an order requested by conservationists to block the third project, Martone said.
If the required environmental assessment shows there could be a significant environmental impact, the Forest Service must conduct a more comprehensive study, Martone said.
The Forest Service has said it plans to conduct a comprehensive study, called an environmental impact statement, for other forest land that the fire burned, the judge noted.
Forest Service officials were not immediately available for comment, but U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., called the ruling an expression of "sanity and common sense."
"While we still have a long way to go, this is a beginning toward the future implementation of responsible forest management techniques," Renzi said.
"This judgment is a testament to the persevering spirit of the people of the White Mountains, who refused to allow outside parties to dictate the management of forest lands in their community," he said.
Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said the ruling allowing salvage operations was "not too late to make a difference."
The group that filed the challenge, the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Forest Conservation Council, was reviewing the decision but considered it a "mixed bag," said John Talberth, director of conservation.
While Martone recognized that the amount of logging proposed near private property was "preposterous," he failed to recognize that the projects together will cause serious harm to the forest by degrading water quality and wildlife habitat, Talberth said.
The 469,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire was the largest in the state's history. Consisting of two fires that merged, Rodeo-Chediski burned from June 18, 2002, to July 7, 2002, destroyed nearly 500 homes and forced 30,000 people to evacuate.
Martone, a Republican and a former Arizona Supreme Court justice, became a federal judge in January 2002. President Bush appointed him.
On the Net:
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests: http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf/