By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

The battle about what to do with burned timber in national forests has foresters and environmentalists at loggerheads, leaving park agencies stuck in the middle.

On Wednesday, Judge Maxine Chesney, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, halted a project to log trees killed by the Megram forest fire in the Six Rivers National Forest pending more environmental review.

andquot;We're still evaluating what the court's decision was and how that relates to Region Five,andquot; said Lou Woltering, supervisor for the Six Rivers National Forest.

To environmentalists, leaving burned timber standing is another part of the natural forest, and they worry about new roads being cut to allow access for logging. Foresters, on the other hand, say burned timber can be salvaged safely without causing environmental harm.

andquot;The special interests that are managing the land aren't really qualified to do so, but they have built up such a mistrust among the population that it's difficult to get anything done,andquot; said Bill Keye, chairman of the Northern California Society of American Foresters.

Keye said the scorched and dead trees from the 1999 Megram fire, which consumed more than 800 acres of forestland east of Hoopa and Willow Creek, are sitting idle when they could be put to use.

andquot;When you have a fire go through a timber stand, especially from a catastrophic forest fire like Megram, those trees are dead and they aren't going to come back,andquot; said Keye. andquot;There's no reason in the world we shouldn't be able to remove those trees (since they) are only going to provide fuel for future forest fires.andquot;

Tim McKay of the North Coast Environmental Center in Eureka disagreed.

andquot;There are consequences when the ground is disturbed in roadless areas by this sort of activity,andquot; said McKay. andquot;Fires are a natural part of the life of a forest and the dead wood provides habitats for countless birds.andquot;

andquot;The area is already disturbed,andquot; said Keye. andquot;It's going to come back naturally, of course, and although some of it is in roadless areas, there are areas they only believe are roadless.andquot;

Keye's argument that the dead trees provide fuel for future fires did not fare well with McKay.

andquot;There's an irony to their argument that removing trees with helicopters, in roadless areas, also removes fuel for future fires because those operations take only the biggest logs and leave the smaller debris that would really contribute to a fire,andquot; said McKay.

McKay said his group is not opposed to some trees being removed if they are near roads, but he was opposed to creating new roads in wilderness areas to get at the dead trees.

Adrift in the middle of this argument are officials who manage the Six Rivers National Forest, where the Megram fire took a heavy toll.

Woltering, in a compromising position, said he is a proponent of the salvage because it is a tool to create fire breaks, but only in specific areas.

andquot;Oh, very definitely it (salvage) is useful,andquot; Woltering said. andquot;We spent a great deal on a watershed analysis and received input from several people from both sides of the equation. We developed this program to create strategic fuel breaks along the roads and ridgetops not only to protect communities but also the old growth and streams in those areas.andquot;

According to Woltering and Julie Ranieri, public affairs officer, areas in national parklands are subject to tree-thinning at any rate, not just as salvage from fires.

andquot;In a nutshell, we have green sale objective across the forest of 15 and a-half board-feet and three million board-feet from the salvage program,andquot; said Ranieri. andquot;And there are areas called matrix land which are designated to produce timber, which is one of our multiple-use objectives.andquot;

Both Woltering and Ranieri said the areas vary from year to year and could not say how many acres there are locally, but some of this matrix land is located in Del Norte County.

In this week's court ruling, Chesney agreed the environmental analysis prepared for the logging plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.

Seven environmental groups filed the lawsuit last year, arguing that the Forest Service failed to address scientific evidence indicating that the proposed logging in the 1999 Megram Fire area in Humboldt County would damage soil, harm fish habitat, and retard ecosystem recovery after the fire.

Plaintiffs include the Environmental Protection Information Center, Sierra Club, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Klamath Forest Alliance, and Forest Conservation Council. The court said the Forest Service failed to address the overall, cumulative impacts on wildlife, failed to consider the impacts of past firefighting operations in the area, and failed to show how the project would meet forest-plan soil standards.