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Feds say balance struck in plan for logging trees that were downed by California wildfire

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FRESNO, Calif. - 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.

Environmentalists, however, have called it a travesty.

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 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 Stanislaus National Forest, said in the plan that she considered the need to reduce future fires while protecting the environment and wildlife. She considered 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.

An estimated 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 in a conference call with reporters on Thursday that harvesting trees should begin this fall. A Forest Service veteran of 34 years, she said post-fire logging is common practice, and under President Obama the policy 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 will file a federal petition seeking to list the spotted owl as endangered or threatened.

Mike Albrecht, co-owner of the logging firm Sierra Resources Management, said removing dead trees for more than a year will create some 600 timber jobs and further stimulate the local economy because loggers need fuel, tires and mechanics. He foresees the plan generating as many as 1,800 jobs for the foothill communities.

The timber has a value between $5 million and $8 million, said Albrecht, who chaired a committee that sought to bring all factions together for a unified plan for logging the Rim Fire's dead trees.

"It'll be an economic tragedy if this gets litigated and stopped," he said. "We're trying to find that balance and not get litigated."

Skalski was 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.

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