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Norton proposes new plans, technology to maintain forests

Interior Secretary says forest underbrush can be valuable

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MISSOULA, Mont. — Managing the nation's forests does not have to be a choice between logging and preservation, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Thursday.

In a speech Thursday to a forest summit hosted by the Western Governors' Association, Norton said the Bush administration plans to offer managers new tools to not only help manage the forests and prevent catastrophic fires, but to study new profitable and environmentally friendly ways to use forest products.

Norton highlighted a proposal to turn normally useless underbrush and small trees taken during thinning projects into a profitable energy source.

She said she has reached an agreement with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to study the idea of using woody "biomass" as an energy source.

Part of the concern over plans to thin forests for fire prevention is that taking small trees and underbrush is not profitable for logging companies. But Norton said wood products such as plants, limbs, tops and needles removed during thinning projects can be a valuable source of renewable energy.

"The challenge has been that markets for biomass and small wood are sporadic and marginally economical in most Western states," Norton said.

She said the agencies will help find ways to build markets for the product.

Experts at the meeting have said that years of wildfire suppression has left forests clogged with stunted trees and underbrush. But they have also pointed out that the federal government would have to pay logging companies to remove the items from forests, as compared to traditional timber sales of marketable trees that puts cash in federal coffers.

Environmentalists have opposed many such timber sales, arguing they don't recreate the natural thinning process of wildfires. They say large-scale logging projects are rough on the landscape. And they remain suspicious that the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative is intended to feed the timber industry at the expense of the forests.

Jake Kreilick, with the National Forest Protection Alliance, said environmentalists worry a successful biomass project would only lead to a large demand for more wood products.

"This isn't a love-fest here," he said of the summit. "But we in the environmental community do want to move forward because we have had a lot of blame (for wildfires) placed on us."

Norton also highlighted other new technologies that could make forest thinning more ecologically sound.

She showed a video of a new logging machine that walks on six legs, stepping over objects and adjusting its weight to tread lightly on the ground while snapping down trees with giant hydraulic arms.

Such advancements, coupled with a better understanding of what it takes to have a healthy forest environment, make it possible to implement Bush's forest plan, Norton said.

Environmentalists fear the initiative would eliminate some environmental reviews and limit appeals on overgrown woodlands so forest projects could be completed within months, providing no safeguard that the federal government will hold to the tenets of the final forest plan.