Like a hotshot smokejumper, Congress has leaped into the debate over forest health and fire. All too predictably, say critics, it is wielding a chain saw.


Proclaiming that he wants to "break the cycle of forest decline and mortality, followed by catastrophic fire," Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, introduced the Federal Lands Forest Health and Restoration Act in early February.


The bill would allow the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to give fast-track approval of timber salvage sales in areas declared "emergency" or "high-risk" for fire danger. Emergency areas are defined as those with 50 percent or more of dead and dying trees, while high-risk areas are forests with "substantial risk of insect, disease, or fire problems."


Interested parties, including timber companies, could petition the agencies to designate areas larger than 100 acres as either "emergency" or "high risk," and the agencies would have to justify not proceeding with offering timber sales in those areas.


To expedite timber harvesting, the bill bars citizens from appealing timber sales in emergency areas. It also speeds the processes for complying with federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.


For instance, the Forest Service would not have to do a full-blown environmental impact statement - even in a roadless area - for emergency timber sales. The legislation also directs the federal agencies to broaden their regulations for small timber sales that can bypass the NEPA process entirely.


Environmentalists say the bill would clear a path for timber companies that want to log the West's remaining roadless areas.


"This bill would erode our democratic processes and result in a tremendous loss of biological diversity in our forests in a very short period of time," says Barry Rosenberg of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, based in Spokane, Wash. "It would move us closer to corporate control of our forests."


Andy Stahl, executive director of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, says Craig's bill is unnecessary. The Forest Service already has the authority to do the types of management activities - such as thinning and brush removal - contemplated in the bill, he says.


Stahl says the "50 percent dead and dying timber" criterion for designating emergency areas would yield "nonsensical results." For example, a healthy, young Douglas fir forest might qualify just because it has a naturally high rate of die-off. "This is the kind of bill you get when legislators pretend to be foresters," Stahl says.


Craig maintains his bill is based on good science. "Don't be misled by those who proclaim that wildfire is beneficial to the environment because a natural mosaic of vegetation is created," he said, when introducing the bill. "The 1994 fires were way outside the norms. Damage to every component of the environment was extensive."


Craig points to the draft environmental impact statement just released on the Boise National Forest, which documents long-term, severe damage to watersheds, soils, fisheries and wildlife from last summer's fires.


But Art Partridge, a University of Idaho forest pathologist who has studied forest health issues for 30 years, says that while the Boise fires burned hot and damaged soils in some places, tree survival in other areas was 40 to 60 percent. "Those fires exhibited the same diversity as any fire," he says.


Partridge, who takes a long view of forest health cycles, says Craig's bill looks at forests only in terms of timber production.


"There is no data to indicate that we're having a forest-health emergency at all," he says. "Our forests are at their lowest rate of mortality and sickness in 29 years. This bill is just a wedge to do something."


Although forest health bills have languished in past legislative sessions, environmentalists say they worry that the Craig bill may have a legitimate chance of passing this Congress given the current political climate. They are banking on a Clinton veto if the bill gets to the president's desk. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held hearings on the Craig bill in late February. For a copy of S. 391, contact Senator Craig's office, 202/224-2752.


* Paul Larmer