WASHINGTON – The nation’s number two forest official issued a precedent-setting decision Dec. 17 that could greatly affect America’s National Forests.

Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former top timber industry lobbyist, approved logging on 46,000 acres of forest on Montana’s Bitteroot National Forest, threatening prime habitat for the bull trout and other wildlife. By signing off on the proposed timber sale, the undersecretary removed the ability of citizens to file appeals on the project and insures that the Forest Service will be taken to court.

“The Bush administration is chopping away at the basic laws that protect our national forests from unchecked logging and other development,” said Melanie Griffin, director of the Sierra Club’s Land Protection Program. “We call on Undersecretary Mark Rey to listen to the American public and protect our national forests for future generations, not sacrifice them for short-term industry profit.”

The “Burned Area Recovery” timber sale, the largest salvage logging project in the history of the Forest Service, is designed to log portions of the Bitteroot National Forest that were burned in the summer of 2000. The Forest Service wants to log more than 181 million board feet from the burnt forest, despite opposition from local citizens and scientific evidence that shows logging increases sediment in streams.

Downed and burned trees reduce erosion, enrich the soil and provide habitat for woodpeckers and other wildlife. A significant portion of the timber sale is planned for previously unroaded areas that provide habitat for the threatened bull trout. Also, allowing natural processes in burnt forests increases the ability of the forest to recover.

“This project will cause impacts that affect the forest for years to come and ignores the 4,400 citizen comments that opposed the timber sale,” said Jennifer Ferenstein, president of the Sierra Club. “This decision gives the concerned citizen no other alternative than to take the Forest Service to court.”

In another move Dec. 17, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth issued a directive to unravel protections for undeveloped wild areas in National Forests, allowing new, destructive development and logging in 58.5 million acres of unspoiled forests.

In recent months, the Forest Service has released a series of policy changes that severely undermine protections for national forests. Recent directives have opened the door to logging in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest, the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth and home to grizzly bears and wild salmon.

Another recent proposal would make it easier for the Forest Service to use a loophole called “categorical exclusions” to fast-track destructive logging projects – even if the logging will harm endangered species or spoil a wild forest roadless area.

Road construction is particularly damaging to forests. Of the 440,000 miles of roads in the National Forest System, only 20 percent of these receive regular maintenance. These roads dump sediment into streams, cause damage to fish and wildlife habitat and increase the cost of water filtration for towns.

“Instead of listening to the two million public comments in favor of fully protecting wild forests,” said Griffin. “The Forest Service is opening the door to the timber industry to trash our nation’s forests for private profit.”