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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Lawless Logging

It's our choice: vision and law,or stumps and promises.

by Carl Pope

In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton vowed to manage America's national forests in accordance with science and federal law. The promise was as sound politically as it was ecologically: Clinton carried California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, whose forests were routinely plundered during the Reagan-Bush era. This June, President Clinton appeared ready to match word to deed.

The Republican-dominated 104th Congress had sent him a "rescissions" bill, which proposed cutting $16.4 billion from the current federal budget. Attached to it was an unrelated provision or "rider" that would suspend environmental laws in order to give the timber industry free rein in the national forests. When the bill hit the President's desk, he exercised the first veto of his 30-month-old term, specifically labeling the logging rider "very bad."

The nation's press praised the move. The New York Times said that the "provision sought by logging interests to allow indiscriminate timber cutting on federal lands would have been sufficient reason to say no" to the bill. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorialized, "President Clinton has done the right thing in vetoing a bill that left too much leeway for cheating in salvage-timber sales in the Northwest." Environmentalists cheered the veto as a sign of the President's vision, integrity, and respect for environmental law.

Then, only weeks later-on July 27, 1995-Clinton threw it all away and leapt off a political cliff, signing a revised version of the bill with its attack on forests and law intact. Clinton claimed that new language in the bill had given his administration more control over timber sales. In fact, it had only shortened the period of lawless logging by nine months. At the time of his original veto, Clinton declared that "suspending all the environmental laws of the country for three years is not the appropriate way" to log the nation's forests. Somehow suspending all the environmental laws for two years was acceptable.

In signing what critics had come to call "logging without laws," President Clinton betrayed his own principles, as stated first on the campaign trail and more recently during the veto ceremony in the Oval Office. He betrayed the forests, exempting them from federal laws like the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts that give them at least a fighting chance at ecological health. He betrayed the American people, who own the forests he had promised to safeguard. And he betrayed the environmental community, which had trusted him to do the right thing.

Supporters of logging without laws disingenuously claimed that it was about "salvage" logging, and was intended only to remove dead trees that were creating fire hazards. The bill defines "salvage," however, as removing "dead, dying, diseased, or associated trees"-that is to say, whatever trees the timber companies want. It directs the Forest Service to greatly increase the level of salvage loggin g, regardless of the cost to U.S. taxpayers. And its loopholes are big enough to drive a logging truck through. Industry is already in court arguing that the bill allows it to cut 500 million board-feet of "green" (i.e., healthy) timber, while Senate Republicans insist that the bill releases 600 million to 1 billion board-feet of healthy timber for "salvage."

The only way to cut that much timber that fast is to ignore both science and the law. As the President himself put it the first time around, the bill "essentially throw[s] out all of our environmental laws and the protections that we have" governing timber sales in national forests, including citizens' right to challenge illegal sales.

We retain our heritage of wild places in this country for only two reasons: vision and law. Beginning with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, far-seeing Americans have fought to preserve parks and wilderness; political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, Sr., Rogers Morton, and Jimmy Carter have joined private citizens like John Muir, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, David Brower, Howard Zahniser, and Aldo Leopold in mobilizing Americans to the cause of wilds and wildlife.

Law was the bulwark of this vision. From the beginning, U.S. conservationists understood that neither politicians nor bureaucrats could be reliable stewards. Political expediency has a way of tempting government officials to betray the public trust, to squander the legacy of future generations for the needs of the moment. Only citizens, acting through the courts, can be counted on to stand firm in defense of what they hold dear. Wild places still exist only because they are wild by law. Had it been left to bureaucrats and politicians, our remaining old-growth forests would long since have been ground into pulpwood.

Since logging without laws runs counter to both ecological reason and financial sense, political expediency is the only explanation for Clinton's flip-flop. The President evidently calculated that the risks of failing to pass the Republicans' spending bill were greater than those of failing the forests. He is now learning how wrong he was.

The first lesson comes from the timber companies and those in the Forest Service allied with them, who now have a pretext for completing the liquidation of our native forests. Close behind is the hostile Congress, which is disregarding Clinton's threats to veto other anti-environmental bills. (According to the Washington Post's Ann Devroy, Clinton's acceptance of the bill "seems to show the White House will only go so far in protecting environmental legislation the GOP wants to change.") But Clinton must also get the message from the environmentalists who helped elect him in 1992 and whose support he will desperately need in 1996.

How should the Sierra Club proceed? First, we must contest the idea that Congress can arbitrarily quash the checks and balances of our system of government. (The Club and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund have already challenged the power of Congress to suspend U.S. laws under the North American Free Trade Agreement.) Second, we must pressure the administration to put old-growth forests and other ecologically critical woods off-limits. (Salvage logging is now permitted in these areas, but only with the administration's explicit authorization. One month after signing the rescissions bill, Clinton did set aside 2 million acres of roadless areas in Montana, blocking the preparation of salvage sales there.)

Finally, we must make our outrage heard-and felt. Whether or not Clinton can redeem himself, it's imperative that we teach him, or whoever his successor may be, that we have learned the lesson of history: we need vision-and law-to protect our wilderness, both from timber companies and from politicians.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org


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