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GRANTS PASS, Ore.
The U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday it is going ahead with plans to log inside a roadless area in Oregon to reduce the danger of wildfire, but over a much smaller area than originally planned.
The Umpqua National Forest announced it will publish Friday the final environmental impact statement on the D-Bug timber sale, which is designed to reduce wildfire danger around the Diamond Lake and Lemolo Lake resort areas.
The two-year-old project was widely seen as a test of President Barack Obama's campaign promise to protect the 58 million acres of backcountry that has never been commercially logged on national forests across the country.
"Although we scaled back from what we originally proposed, the project still provides a way for people to evacuate the Diamond and Lemolo area in case of fire and provides better safety zones for our fire fighters," Umpqua National Forest Supervisor Cliff Dils said in a statement.
"We recognize that fire is part of the Diamond and Lemolo lakes landscape," he added. "It is our responsibility to act within the next five years to address safety issues that we will need to deal with over the next 20 years."
Dils said the project was reviewed by the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's office under the original 2001 rule protecting roadless areas, which allows thinning to reduce fire danger and insect infestations.
Diamond Lake is a popular camping, fishing and snowmobiling area high in the Cascade Range east of Roseburg where 102 privately owned cabins on national forest land stand across a road from the Mount Bailey Roadless Area, which is densely packed with lodgepole pines, many of which have been killed by mountain pine beetles. Lemolo Lake is a smaller resort lake nearby.
The project scaled back commercial logging from 621 acres within roadless areas to 78 acres. It is all along a road on the western side of Diamond Lake that serves 102 private cabins on federal land, Dils said. Without the logging there is nowhere for firefighters to make a stand against a fire moving out of the roadless area toward the cabins, Dils said.
"When they designed this plan it really looked like they wanted to test the limits of the Obama administration on roadless," said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild. "And from our cursory look the new plan looks like it scaled that way, way back, but it seems they still can't resist pushing the envelope a little bit."
Ross Mickey of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said they had supported the project from the start as a way to improve the ecological health of the forest, and were disappointed that was scaled back.
Mickey said much of the 7,800 acres being treated had to be subsidized by the Forest Service due to low timber value.
"We are hoping that somebody will be able to pencil this out to get this out of the woods without having to go to a total subsidy situation," he said.
Roadless areas have escaped logging largely because they were too remote and rugged to make timber harvests profitable. With the government spending $1 billion a year fighting wildfires, pressure has built to do thinning within their borders. But thinning costs money, and commercial logging is often tacked on to projects to help pay for them.
The idea of preserving roadless areas for wildlife habitat and clean water came out of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration tried to open them up to more logging and mining by giving states control. Courts have yet to finally resolve legal issues over which rule applies and where.
During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to respect the Clinton rule, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack repeated that pledged last year.