Chainsaws fall silent in Cove-Mallard

by Eric Barker

NEZ PERCE NATIONAL FOREST, Idaho - Just a few years ago, Cove-Mallard, a roadless area, was a rallying cry for anti-logging activists. As bulldozers pushed into the rolling mountains above the Salmon River in north-central Idaho, protesters locked themselves to gates, buried each other under piles of slash and erected and perched in a series of tall tripods to stop road builders (HCN, 9/2/96).


Now, the woods are quiet - no chainsaws, no arrests. Cutting has stopped in the two Nez Perce National Forest roadless areas.


It stopped when Bruce Bernhardt, a stocky man with a New York accent, became forest supervisor early last year. He announced that six unsold timber sales planned for Cove-Mallard would remain unsold. The forest, he said, has other priorities.


"It's an intact ecosystem and in terms of ecosystem restoration there are so many other places that need to be restored," he said. Bernhardt made his announcement to halt cutting in Cove-Mallard even before President Clinton unveiled his plan to permanently protect roadless areas in national forests. As an inventoried roadless area, Cove-Mallard's 77,000 acres are included in 40 million acres up for a fresh look by the public. Although local sawmills facing big income cuts were disappointed, activists were thrilled.


"My first reaction was just to say Yahoo!" says Robert Amon, a 60-ish spokesman for Cove-Mallard protesters, who has spent the past two years writing a book about his transition from insurance executive to tree hugger. Yet Amon, known as Ramon, says that despite the seeming victory, the war is not over.


"We don't think we can retire just yet. The day all eco-bozos could retire would be a good thing," he says. "On big pensions," he adds.


Activists have been cautious about declaring victory because they fear fickle political winds.


"If George Bush is elected, (Forest Service Chief Mike) Dombeck will be kicked out and logging will continue," says Ron Mitchell of the Idaho Sporting Congress. His group was among the first to protest timber cutting and road building in Cove-Mallard. He sued the forest managers twice, losing both times, but says the suits and civil disobedience delayed road building and logging. "It definitely slowed them down. They had to wait."


But the timber industry says the Forest Service's decision is a big mistake. "It's a tragedy. It really is," said Dick D. Willhite, the resource manager of the local Shearer Lumber Co. "But once the Forest Service makes up their minds not to do something, it's hard to make them."


Hungry from a decade-long decline of harvesting on national forest lands, industry folks say if there ever were a place that needed restoration through logging, it's Cove-Mallard. The trees there, mostly mature lodgepole pines, are at the end of their life cycles and succumbing to disease, the industry claims.


"This forest is dying," says Willhite. His company won the bids on three timber sales that did go forward and would like a chance at the remaining six.





The motivators of change


The timber industry shrugs off the effectiveness of the activists and attributes the change at Cove-Mallard more to Clinton's so-called War on the West. "I don't think the Earth First!ers had any real impact," says Willhite. "But on a national basis, I think Al Gore, Dombeck and (Undersecretary of Agriculture) Jim Lyons did the politically expedient thing, and that is to shut down the timber program on the national forests. All of them."


Highland Enterprises of Grangeville, the company that built the roads in Cove-Mallard, is also reluctant to concede victory to the activists. "I don't attribute one iota of it to Earth First!," says manager Andy Hairston. But he says the group did cost his company money. "It's a hindrance and it's a costly hindrance. They held up production," he says.


Forest Service officials say there were many factors that motivated the decision to stop cuts. Listings of bull trout, steelhead and chinook salmon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act delayed the Cove-Mallard sales, and a nationwide $8.4 billion road-maintenance backlog dulled the Forest Service's enthusiasm for building more roads.


"We've realized we have a lot of road we need to manage, so in the foreseeable future it's hard to visualize we're going to build any more road," says Ihor Mereszczak, a staff officer on the Nez Perce who has been with the forest since the cuts were first planned. "If we can't manage our roads, we can't maintain the environment. It's a holistic process."


Dombeck's assistant, Chris Wood, says the agency has a new outlook on roads. "I think the values and public sentiment have shifted, and frankly, the sentiment of the Forest Service shifted from the days of the big road projects in roadless areas," says Wood.


That's bad news for Willhite, who says his company's mill at Elk City will be threatened if the flow of timber coming off the Nez Perce continues to trickle. "It's really tough. It's hard to run a sawmill in the middle of the Nez Perce Forest when the Nez Perce Forest doesn't sell any timber." Willhite hopes the new emphasis on stewardship contracts - a new method of planning that links ecosystem restoration with limited amounts of logging - can feed the mill (see page 4). "If it comes to fruition, it's a good way of doing things."


* Eric Barker





Eric Barker is the environmental reporter for the Lewiston Morning Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho.





You can contact ...


* The Cove-Mallard Coalition, P.O. Box 8968, Moscow, ID 83843 (208/882-9755); e-mail: cove@moscow.com;


* Nez Perce National Forest, Rt. 2, Box 475, Grangeville, ID 83530 (208/983-1950); e-mail: ri\_nezperce@fs.fed.us;


* Shearer Lumber Co., Rt. 1, Box 2L, Grangeville, ID 83530 (208/983-0012). © High Country News