Three environmental organizations recently posed that question in a formal petition to the Secretary of Agriculture, whose department oversees the Forest Service.
Currently, the Forest Service designates only logging outfits as "responsible bidders' on tree sales. But with their petition for rule making, the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and the Oregon Natural Resources Council say they want almost all timber sales to go to the highest bidder.
The environmentalists say the change would maximize the revenue taxpayers realize from timber sales, protect watersheds and save taxpayers the costs of roads and overhead associated with preparing tree sales for logging companies.
"We're simply asking the agency to allow the free market to work - to let people who pay top dollar leave the trees alone if they want," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, in Tucson, Ariz.
For his part, lobbyist Bob Dick of the Northwest Forestry Association in Olympia, Wash., says: "This clearly goes against the central mandate of the Forest Service to produce commodities."
Yet even Dick conceded the significance of the petition. He noted that its filing comes just as congressional budget hawks from both parties want to cut Forest Service road-building for the timber industry. Further, the petition extends to the national arena an environmental campaign to win grazing leases that so far has been pushed largely at the state level.
Last October, the New Mexico state land office awarded a five-year lease on a 550-acre tract along the Rio Puerco near the town of Cuba to the Forest Guardians group of Santa Fe and the Las Cruces-based Southwest Environmental Center. Their high bid of $770 a year allowed them to remove cattle from the range, fence it, and begin restoring the riparian area (HCN, 11/25/96).
The new petition focuses on federal rules that have so far stymied "un-logging" efforts. Last year the Forest Service refused to award trees on the Okanogan National Forest in Washington to the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, despite its high bid. And last fall, when the Southwest Center was successful in purchasing half the Rustler Salvage Sale on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona, the Forest Service said the group had to log or face resale of the permits.
For now, Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment James Lyons says he is "intrigued."
"If changing this technicality leaves the resource better off and the taxpayers better off," he says, "you have to look at it."
For a copy of its "Petition for Rulemaking," contact the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, P.O. Box 17839, Tucson, AZ 85731 (520/624-7893). A decision is expected within 90 days.
* Mark Muro
Mark Muro is an editorial writer for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.