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Sierra Magazine
Logging Without Looking

by Reed McManus

Toss a hatchet at a map of U.S. national forests, and it will probably land on the site of a salvage logging sale. Billed as a rescue mission for fire- and bug-damaged trees, the rider passed by Congress last summer has instead spawned a chainsaw free-for-all. It suspends all environmental and forest management laws for any timber sale on federal forests dubbed "salvage"--a broad definition that includes "dead, dying, diseased, or 'associated' trees." In effect, the rider lets loggers cut whatever they want to cut.

Under the guise of salvage logging, forests are falling at breakneck speed this summer because the "logging without laws" rider opens up hundreds of thousands of acres of healthy public forests, including old-growth stands in the Pacific Northwest. Sites of hard-won protections for endangered and threatened species are getting the ax. Sales that were once offered up as full of green, healthy trees are back on the block, unchanged, as salvage sales. If just one tree in an area is unhealthy, the surrounding acreage can be labeled a mercy case.

What's fueling the frenzy is Congress' insistence that the Forest Service double its planned salvage cut to 4.5 billion board-feet through 1996. That virtually mandates major sales in hard-to-reach and roadless areas, a costly proposition. Not surprisingly, salvage logging is proving to be a loser for the American taxpayer.

Nationwide, more than a dozen lawsuits challenging the rider have been filed, and all have been shot down. That's because the rider revokes all citizen appeal procedures and the powers of the federal courts to issue injunctions to stop logging. Hope for a remedy has turned to President Clinton, who only recently termed the salvage logging law "a mistake," and to Congress, where Representative Elizabeth Furse (D- Ore.) and Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) have introduced bills to repeal it. (Anti-environmentalists are pressing ahead, too: Idaho Senator Larry Craig (R) has sponsored a bill to enshrine the rider's most offensive features permanently.) Meanwhile, the carnage continues. Here's just a sample:

Fish and forests don't mix, according to the salvage rider. In Idaho's Boise and Payette national forests, salvage logging continues despite protests by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Fish and Game, and the Forest Service's own scientists, who say that threatened chinook salmon are at risk from damage to the Salmon River watershed. Since the rider has given the Forest Service precedence over other federal agencies, the Interior Department was forced to withdraw its condemnation of the proposed sale.

In Michigan's Ottawa National Forest, a region with scarcely any roadless or unfragmented wilderness, the Ten Mile Creek sale proposes 22 miles of new roads and 35 clearcuts covering approximately 350 acres. The Forest Service received no bids on its first offering, but proposes to lower the price and re-offer it later this year. At stake is a mixed forest of white pine, yellow birch, and hemlock that borders the Ontonagon River, a designated wild-and-scenic stream.

First Creek basin in Washington's Wenatchee National Forest survived a light-to-moderate natural "underburn" during the 1994 fire season, but it may not outlive the salvage law. Thick, fire-resistant bark protected virtually all of the forest's mature pine and Douglas fir. Nevertheless, the Forest Service is selling 11 million board feet--thousands of centuries-old trees--of mostly live timber under the guise of "salvage."

In Washington's Okanogan National Forest, an attempt by environmentalists to thwart a salvage sale by playing by the rules was squelched. In March, the Forest Service rejected the highest bidder on 275 acres of fire-damaged trees in the Washington Cascades. The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, it turned out, had no intention of actually cutting the trees, an approach the Forest Service found unimaginable. The feds pulled in $28,000 from the next-highest bidder, a local logging company, but spent $200,000 preparing the sale and had to add green trees to attract this buyer.

In southern Utah's Dixie National Forest, the Sidney Valley timber sale was announced several times, but hadn't lured a bidder--even after the minimum price had been slashed by half. Only the salvage-logging rider was able to breathe life into this unwanted sale: additional acres were slated for logging, and areas that had previously been designated as appropriate for helicopter logging to protect resources are now approved for tractor logging.

In Flathead National Forest, a proposed salvage sale threatens a grizzly bear management area a mile from Glacier National Park; in pre-rider days the area's main priority was the grizzly. Forest Service records indicate no "forest health" emergency in the Middle Fork, and an analysis by University of Idaho scientists determined that fewer than 0.5 percent of the area's trees were dead or dying due to root rot fungus.

Despite the salvage-logging juggernaut, environmentalists have had some successes. In Northern California's Lassen National Forest, a salvage sale that would have crippled the efforts of the Quincy Library Group, a nationally acclaimed cooperative partnership between local landowners, environmentalists, and the timber industry, was quietly canceled. In Oregon's Umpqua National Forest, 1,000-year-old trees in a roadless area were spared--but only after forest activists were arrested for trespassing in a Forest Service off-limits zone. At the last minute, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman announced that the Forest Service could offer timber companies trees from less ecologically sensitive areas. By then, Roseburg Forest Products had already clawed its way into 15 of the 299 old-growth acres it had been granted, but now its saws will turn to an already roaded and partly cut area of the forest. Environmentalists are happy that most of the Umpqua has been saved, but don't see such trades as a solution to the salvage-logging problem.

And while environmentalists have won no court rulings, there have been some legal victories. With the help of the Sierra Club, the Alabama Wilderness Alliance and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation settled a lawsuit against the Forest Service over a salvage-timber sale in the Conecuh National Forest. The agency's original plan was to allow unlimited logging of 45,000 acres--more than half the forest's total. The groups provided surveys showing that Forest Service claims of alleged damage were grossly inflated, and the cut has been reduced to 15,000 acres and will be limited to genuinely damaged trees. Since then, the groups have gained similar concessions in the Tuskegee National Forest.

Unless citizens make their voices heard, trees will continue to fall until the rider expires at the end of the year--and even longer if the anti-environmentalists have their way. Contact your local Sierra Club chapter to find out more about salvage logging in public forests near you; write President Clinton and insist that he exercise his prerogative to cancel salvage sales; and urge your legislators to support the Furse bill in the House and the Bradley bill in the Senate repealing the salvage law, and to oppose the Craig bill in the Senate consecrating it.


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