Bucking strong opposition that includes the governor of Oregon, the Clinton administration has picked a controversial old-growth timber sale in the heart of a roadless area as its first major offering under the President's Northwest Forest Plan.


The Sugarloaf sale on the flank of Grayback Mountain is one of 21 sales the administration will allow in old-growth reserves created by the plan. To Julie Norman, president of the Ashland, Ore., group Headwaters, the sale "is the first ... and the worst," based on a survey of activists.


The 669-acre sale, which includes trees 700 years old, was auctioned in 1989 and subsequently protected from legal challenge by Congress, so it did not have to comply with standards in the administration's new regionwide plan.


The plan - famously or infamously - is supposed to protect the coastal ecosystem that includes remnant ancient forests in Washington, Oregon and northern California.


Conservationists in southwest Oregon had fought the Sugarloaf sale for a decade. Now, they say, they've run out of options.


"I thought I had a promise from (Assistant Secretary of Agriculture) Jim Lyons, but I guess it was a hoax," says Norman.


Norman contends that Lyons, along with Siskiyou Forest Supervisor Mike Lunn and Regional Forester John Lowe, broke a promise to reevaluate the sale. Norman says she was told the sale would be redesigned after a survey by an independent forester found two cutting units included far more old-growth trees than the agency had estimated.


But when Lowe and Lunn awarded the Sugarloaf sale to Boise Cascade Aug. 22, it was virtually unchanged.


Pressure to move the sale forward came from over the head of Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, environmentalists charge.


Norman said opponents of the sale knew the area well and had done their homework. Forester Greg Harty of the Public Forestry Foundation found that 40 percent of the timber volume in the sale - 4.2 million board-feet - would come from trees 46 inches or greater in diameter. The Forest Service had estimated that only 1.2 million board-feet would come from such large trees. Although Assistant Agriculture Secretary Lyons said "only a few old trees' were slated for logging, the Forest Service's follow-up survey found more than 1,000 trees over 46 inches in diameter were marked for cutting.


The Forest Service says the Sugarloaf sale has been designed to protect the environment. It will require Boise Cascade to log selectively and to remove the 10.5 million board-feet of timber by helicopter. The roadless character of the area will be preserved and forest health will be improved, the Forest Service says.


David Perry, professor of ecosystem studies at Oregon State University's Department of Forest Science, scoffs at that notion.


Perry wrote to Lyons twice in August urging him to rethink the Sugarloaf sale. Fragmenting a 600-acre stand of old-growth trees and taking large numbers of healthy older trees could jeopardize the integrity of the forest, as well as the survival of a pair of northern spotted owls, Perry says.


"Cutting old trees under the guise of improving forest health will only fuel the cynicism among scientists and environmentalists about Forest Service motives," Perry says. "Presently, that cynicism is getting in the way of real measures to improve forest health, and it sure as hell doesn't need more fuel."


Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts became involved in the dispute over the sale because her administration had picked Grayback Creek, which drains the area set for logging, as one of two watersheds the state plans to invest millions in to restore stream banks.


"Our concerns include the potential for continued degradation upstream as we spend restoration funds downstream," wrote Anne Squier, Roberts' natural resources aide, in a letter to Regional Forester Lowe.


Laurie Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the Clinton administration's Office of Forestry and Economic Development in Portland, says the administration is doing its best in an environmentally sensitive way to meet past commitments to log. "This was a very, very tough call," she says. "Nobody in the administration is happy about it."


But Norman questions why Clinton appointees feel so bound to deliver on a logging plan developed during the Bush administration. "This undermines all the thinking that went into the Clinton forest plan," she says. On Sept. 7, Lyons called her, Norman adds, but only to say he thought the Sugarloaf sale had been adjusted and the concerns of critics addressed.


Norman says there's still time for the Clinton administration to take a second look and decide that a key watershed needs preserving. "We need a presidential pardon," she says.





* Kathie Durbin





For more information, contact Julie Norman of Headwaters, P.O. Box 729, Ashland, OR 97520 (503/482-4459), or Siskiyou National Forest, P.O. Box 440, Grants Pass, OR 97526 (503/471-6500).