By Susan Zakin
NOBODY WOULD accuse the Gingrich Revolution of being subtle. But while the G-Men conduct their frontal assault on women and children, the forest products industry's legislative henchmen are masking their war on trees under the guise of "forest health." To the poll-conscious 104th Congress, it's more acceptable to be against welfare than environmental protection, but if you read the fine print, the basic corporate giveaway agenda is the same.
The major vehicle for the pro-timber forces is a bill introduced by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig a few weeks ago under the moniker "The Federal Lands Forest Health Protection and Restoration Act." The so-called forest health bill would give the U.S. Forest Service a blank check to cut timber in all but wilderness and wilderness study areas in cases where fire or insect infestation even remotely looks like a possibility. Since virtually every tree has a bug in it, that means just about everywhere.
It's no accident that "forest health" is rapidly becoming a synonym for clearcutting. Health is the buzzword of choice these days, no matter what side you're on in the environmental debate.
Mark Rey, who recently joined the staff of Sen. Frank "Trash the Tongass" Murkowski after a long stint at the National Forest Products Association, was hip to the jargon. So, with the help of two industry lawyers, Rey got to work on a forest health bill that had been batted around by environmentalists and timber industry people for four years, deleting its provisions for citizen involvement and inserting provisions that would truncate the requirements of at least three major environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act.
In the last few weeks, Republicans from the west also tried to sneak through two riders, one on an appropriations bill and another on a budget recision bill (which removes items from last year's budget). Sen. Slade Gorton's "sufficiency rider" tacked on to a defense spending bill would exempt national forest land from environmental laws, effectively destroying the Clinton-engineered compromise on ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest. In other action, the House Appropriations Committee passed a rider permitting expedited salvage logging of more than three billion board feet from the national forests over and above the level already permitted by law. Representative Sid Yates (D-Ill.) estimated the amendment, which also limits citizen involvement and judicial review, would cost taxpayers $350 million a year to implement.
Both the salvage ride and the Craig "forest health" bill are supposedly designed to help alleviate a real problem caused by a century of fire suppression, which is that fires now tend to burn hotter and last longer than they used to because of the overabundance of understory in many forests. Given the high cost of last summer's wildfires, you'd think the Forest Service would be thrilled. On the contrary, official reaction ranged from lukewarm to outright opposition.
"Personally, I think we can utilize existing legislation instead of creating new laws," said Ann Bartuska, director of forest pest management and one of the bright lights of the "new" Forest Service. Bartuska pointed out there has been a forest health program for five years, and that, like many of the so-called regulatory reforms of the Republican congress, the Craig bill would create more bureaucracy and more paper. She added that Forest Service officials have been meeting with other agencies to streamline the consultation and evaluation process required by ESA and NEPA--without changing the laws or their provisions for public involvement.
Bartuska was especially concerned about the bill's definitions of "dead and dying" trees which could be salvaged. Like ecologists at both the Wilderness Society and the World Wildlife Fund, Bartuska expressed concern that if the bill passed, it would be the older, larger trees that would be cut to "sweeten the pot" for timber companies called in for "thinning."
These are the kinds of abuses that Clinton-era reformers have been trying to correct, which explains their vote of non-support for Craig's bill. Recently, Jim Lyons, undersecretary for natural resources and environment, testified before Congress, strongly opposing provisions that would short-circuit existing environmental laws. For instance, in areas qualifying for "emergency" status under the Craig bill, environmentalists would not be able to file administrative appeals. Instead, they would be forced to go to court, a far more expensive and time-consuming process. The time allotted for citizen review under NEPA would be cut, and requirements to study the environmental effects of logging would also be reduced.
Even before Lyons hit the microphones, the environmental movement's senior timber warrior, Brock Evans, vice president of the National Audubon Society, was already marshaling his forces, counting senate heads to gauge whether a filibuster could be pulled off. But putting out fires in Washington may be draining energy from setting fires in the forests that need them. Forest ecologist Wallace Covington at Northern Arizona University is one of the people trying to figure out how to correct the imbalance created by more than a century of fire suppression. Putting out fires has interrupted natural fire cycles--which range from half a dozen years to several hundred or more--and created, in some forests, what Covington calls "a population explosion of trees." This is especially true in states like Arizona, where much of the forest thrived on small wildfires every seven to 10 years until European settlement.
In one spot he studied in Arizona, Covington counted 1,200 trees growing on an acre of land that supported only 23 trees in pre-settlement days. This is the perfect setup for the big-time fires we've seen in the past few summers. The jury is still out on whether these fires are truly catastrophic--Yellowstone is looking pretty good lately--but they sure cost the government a lot of money and scare people.
Covington has been developing ways to restore ponderosa pine forests by thinning younger understory trees, raking slash and debris, and setting in place a continuous regime of prescribed burning. But, like Ann Bartuska of the Forest Service, he's not about to trust the plan offered by Craig because it funds restoration activities through salvage logging, which will inevitably put pressure on foresters to sell off big trees. It's a classic fox-in-the-henhouse scenario, with timber sale planners doing work that should be left to ecologists.
The Craig bill is supported by only one conservation group,
American Forests, which has been described as "the Forest Service's little brother." The group's director, Neil Sampson, feels so strongly about the forest health crisis that he's willing to trust the U.S. Forest Service with a blank check. But the rest of the environmental community thinks he'd be better advised to support projects like Covington's plan for the ponderosa pine forests of the Kaibab Plateau. Covington flew off to Washington, D.C., recently to sell Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on the idea of restoring 10,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management Land to its healthy pre-settlement state, and earn thousands from timber sales in the process. And unlike senators Gorton and Craig, he won't have to violate any environmental laws to do it.
Susan Zakin is the author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, which is being published in paperback next month.
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