MISSOULA (AP) – Two sides at odds over logging burned trees from parts of the Bitterroot National Forest spent their second long day behind closed doors Wednesday, trying to hammer out an agreement and avoid a hearing in front of a federal judge.
The group, which included U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and representatives of environmental organizations that sued the agency, emerged without comment for only brief breaks, and were still in the court-ordered mediation past dark Wednesday, with no word of a resolution.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who ordered the two-day mediation last week, has said he will hold a hearing Thursday and decide the matter himself if the two sides cannot reach a settlement over the proposed emergency logging of five timber sales within the Bitterroot.
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The proposed salvage logging would occur on just 5,400 acres within the Bitterroot National Forest. The Forest Service maintains the timber needs to be harvested this winter, before it loses its commercial value to insects, and while the ground is frozen and potential environmental damage can be better mitigated.
But the timber sales are within the agencys 44,000-acre forest recovery plan, a contentious proposal that environmental groups successfully sued to halt in December. The groups charged that the agency violated its own policies when it bypassed an internal appeals process and had U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey sign off on the plan. In addition to logging, the plan also calls for planting new trees, eliminating old roads and protecting watersheds.
Molloy sided with environmental groups, ruling that the plan couldnt move forward until the Forest Service followed its own appeals process. The Forest Service sought a partial stay from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that would have allowed logging on the five sales to move forward.
The appeals court said Molloy should make that decision. He ordered the mediation before another judge, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Oregon, in an effort to get the two sides to reach a deal, but said he would decide the matter if they could not.
The Bitterroot, in southwestern Montana, is a sprawling 1.6 million-acre forest. Wildfires during the summer of 2000 burned about 307,000 acres of the Bitterroot.
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