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GRANTS PASS — The 64,000 acres of new wilderness that the U.S. Forest Service wants to create within the area burned by the massive 2002 Biscuit Fire covers ground that has been fought over for more than 20 years by environmentalists trying to put old growth forests off-limits to logging.

Earth First! protesters laid down in front of bulldozers in 1983 to stop construction of the Bald Mountain Road through the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. Others climbed charred trees to stop salvage logging after the Silver Creek drainage burned in 1987.

Environmentalists, however, are far from supportive of the Forest Service's current wilderness proposal, saying it amounts to a trade-off for support to log other parts of the Siskiyou National Forest that should also be protected.

"The proposal on the table is simply an effort to give the lightest patina of greenness to a very ecologically damaging fiscally irresponsible logging proposal," said Andy Kerr, a consultant working with the Oregon Natural Resources Council's effort to add 343,000 acres to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness — five times the Forest Service proposal.

Environmentalists and members of Congress were taken by surprise this week when Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy proposed adding to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which covers 180,000 acres in the middle of the 500,000 acres that burned in the 2002 Biscuit fire. The proposal is not part of the environmental impact statement in support of logging 370 million board feet of timber killed by the fire.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., whose district includes the Kalmiopsis, said he had been in regular talks with Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey over the Biscuit salvage plan, but never heard "a whisper" about wilderness.

"It would be a very rare day in this Republican Congress," for a wilderness proposal to become law, DeFazio said. "But election years sometimes bring interesting opportunities."

The idea came from Lance Clark on Gov. Ted Kulongoski's natural resources staff after touring the Biscuit burn with federal officials, including Rey, the point man on President Bush's forest policy.

Clark noticed no logging was planned in areas close to the Kalmiopsis, and suggested enlarging the wilderness, said Jim Brown, natural resources adviser to the governor. That began a conversation with Rey, who ultimately supported the idea.

Kulongoski would like to see even more added to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, because he disagrees with the Forest Service plan to log roadless areas that provide valuable fish and wildlife habitat, Brown said.

Plans to log 8,000 acres of roadless area would make 50,000 acres ineligible for future wilderness, noted Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society.

"That's clearly an unacceptable trade off," Anderson said.

The timber industry was not particularly opposed to the wilderness addition, said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, "because a lot of that is unsuitable for timber anyway."

The wilderness is named for Kalmiopsis leacheana, a red flowering bush that depends on fire to stop the encroachment of trees and brush. The region is known for rugged, inaccessible canyons, rare plants and serpentine soils that have a hard time growing trees.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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