In reality, however, the federal timber cut has skipped along at next to nothing, like a coot sprinting across a pond, trying frantically to take off. Rey says getting the program off the ground will require even more changes to the Northwest Forest Plan. He wants Congress to take forests out of the old-growth reserves, lifting another level of protection.

But the reserves are the scientific foundation of the plan, and any effort to redraw the boundaries is sure to land in yet another legal quagmire. Besides, says Franklin, "The reality is that they could probably get out the billion board-feet a year without cutting old-growth forests and without cutting big trees."

However, that’s not likely to happen, according to Jim Furnish, who served as the Forest Service’s deputy chief for national forests under Rey for a year before leaving in frustration. "Is the priority now to continue to cut old-growth timber in the Cascades, or should the Forest Service wise up and say, ‘There is another path,’ " he asks. "Much to my chagrin, the agency seems lashed to that old wagon. They’re a slave to the old-growth question."

Old-growth logging is good for a few of Bush’s supporters: The timber industry donated roughly $1 million to Bush’s 2000 campaign; by Aug. 2 of this year, Bush had netted $543,000 from timber interests for his 2004 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But it’s creating some very bad blood. At a time when the Northwest forests desperately need peace, love and understanding, the rancorous drama plays on, as the public watches in the papers and on TV. Rather than building communities that can handle the challenges presented by cut-over forests, says Derek Volkart with the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, "you’re creating your next generation of radicals."

Ironically, in its hunger for old-growth trees, the timber industry may have sealed its own fate with another request to the Bush administration. As a condition of dropping their lawsuit against the Northwest Forest Plan, timber companies demanded that the federal government review the status of the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet; they hoped the birds would prove healthier than they were a decade ago, and could therefore be stripped of protection. The final "status reviews" are due out later this year, but the early prognosis isn’t what the industry had hoped for.

An independent team of scientists found this summer that the owl is still on the decline in much of Oregon and all of Washington state. While old-growth logging doesn’t pose as serious a threat as it once did, the scientists listed a host of new problems, ranging from aggressive barred owls and West Nile virus to the wildfires and sudden oak death that are taking out owl habitat. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to decide what to do with the findings, some scientists are suggesting that all old-growth forests — even the 1 million acres in the matrix — may be important to the owl’s survival.

The murrelet is faring even worse. Another team of independent scientists concluded this fall that the birds will disappear from California, Oregon and Washington in the next century; the only likely survivors will be 45 birds around Puget Sound. While these findings would indicate that even more caution is in order, the Bush administration seems intent on peeling away the bird’s protections. In early September, the Interior Department released a report stating that the murrelets in Oregon and Washington are not significantly different from birds in British Columbia and Alaska, and therefore do not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The findings, which fly in the face of what independent and agency scientists recommended, were doctored by a high-level administration official, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson. The New York Times recently editorialized: "This administration seems to make no accommodation for anything besides humans’ economic desires. Any creature in the way may find itself legislated, litigated or regulated out of existence."

But two recent court decisions suggest that, even if the Bush administration creates loopholes for industry in environmental laws, the last old-growth trees won’t be headed to the mills any time soon. In early August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmentalists who questioned the legality of old-growth timber sales within the matrix. The sales would have destroyed critical habitat for the spotted owl, and that would have been "blatantly contradictory to Congress’ express demand" under the Endangered Species Act, according to the court (see story, page 5). The case now goes back to a district court, which will decide what timber sales will be affected. Dave Werntz, science director for the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, says hundreds of sales could be affected.

The 9th Circuit also granted environmentalists an emergency injunction on several sales within old-growth reserves burned by the Biscuit Fire, stopping logging at least temporarily. Joseph Vaile with the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center says that "in an attempt to be reasonable," his group appealed only the Biscuit sales that fell within the old-growth reserves, not the sales in the matrix. "They would produce more timber if they were not cutting old growth," he says. "But they’re going after the biggest snags in areas that are only moderately burned. They’re talking about clear-cutting 20,000 acres, and many are in reserves and roadless areas."

So for the time being, at least, the melodrama continues, thanks to the Bush administration’s efforts to roll back the clock on forest protection. But in the communities that are slowly coming to live with a new era of forest restoration, some wonder if it’s time to close the curtains on the play. After all, the public has clearly spoken in favor of saving the last big trees.

"Does it make sense to piss into a hurricane?" asks John Squires, the Packwood, Wash., firewood cutter. "Or does it make more sense to spend our tax dollars on something that’s more likely to go through? It’s our money that’s wasted because somebody wants to make a political point. And who gets left behind? It’s the little guy in the little community who wants to get out into the woods."

 

Greg Hanscom is editor of High Country News.

 

CONTACT:

Siuslaw National Forest 541-750-7000

Siuslaw Institute 541-964-5901

Gifford Pinchot National Forest 360-891-5000

Gifford Pinchot Task Force 503-221-2102

Oregon Natural Resources Council 503-283-6343

Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center 541-488-5789

Umpqua Watersheds 541-672-7652