High in Idaho's snow-clad Nez Perce National Forest, chain saws whine and logging trucks thunder down frozen roads through the night in a frantic effort to fell 8 million board-feet of timber. Downed trees - in stacks higher than ever before seen on the forest, protesters say - tower above the logging trucks.


"They're cutting as fast as they can and putting them on the ground faster than they can haul them out," says Tom Fullum of the Native Forest Network.


Earth First! cofounder Mike Roselle, now with the Cove-Mallard Coalition, was arrested Feb. 8, along with Fullum, for blocking a road to what is called the Noble Timber Sale. Under a new Idaho law they were charged with a felony.


The activists said they were drawn to acts of civil disobedience after federal judges lifted the court injunctions that had kept loggers at bay for more than a year. Now, the trees are falling - at least until March 15. That is the date U.S. District Judge David Ezra reconsiders an injunction stopping any activity that might harm endangered salmon habitat on six Idaho national forests, including the Nez Perce.


The Noble is just one of eight timber sales totaling 81 million board-feet the Forest Service has slated for the Cove-Mallard; the arrests are the latest in a series of protests staged by Cove-Mallard Coalition members over the past three years to stop the tree-cutting. In 1993, heated confrontations resulted in 150 activist arrests (HCN, 3/21/94). Roselle says the Forest Service is the real lawbreaker because it never complied with a National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion that required a resurvey of planned cuts and their impacts on salmon habitat.


It was on those grounds that U.S. District Judge Harold Ryan granted the Idaho Sportsmen's Coalition a temporary injunction against the Cove-Mallard sales in September 1993. But when Judge Alan McDonald, filling in for a sick Judge Ryan, lifted the injunction in early December 1994, the Forest Service felt vindicated.


"We are good land stewards and we have followed the law," said forest supervisor Mike King after the decision.


As a result of McDonald's decision, a road was plowed into the Noble Timber Sale area on Jan. 4, and trees began to fall again on Jan. 13.


Ron Mitchell, of the Idaho Sportmen's Coalition, believes the logging is still illegal. He says the Forest Service pressured federal biologists into weakening their recommendations for protecting salmon. The National Marine Fisheries Service subsequently changed its deadline for a habitat monitoring plan to a time after, and not before, logging began. The Sportsmen's Coalition, which has withdrawn its appeal of Judge McDonald's decision, may sue the Fisheries Service for capitulating to the Forest Service, Mitchell says.


While Cove-Mallard defenders were disappointed that McDonald lifted the injunction, they had high hopes for a second lawsuit covering six national forests in Idaho brought by the Pacific Rivers Council and the Wilderness Society. On Jan. 12, 1995, Judge David Ezra granted the plaintiffs an immediate injunction against all activities affecting endangered Snake River salmon until the Forest Service revamped its forest plans. The decision affected logging of the Noble timber sale by the Shearer Lumber Products company.


But just days later, after local forest-dependent communities, and even some Idaho-based environmental groups, protested vigorously, the Wilderness Society asked for a delay until March 15 (HCN, 2/20/95). Judge David Ezra, also filling in for Judge Ryan, threatened to penalize the plaintiffs for arguing against their own case. But he granted the stay and allowed logging to continue.


The move angered front-line activists in the area. "When national groups get involved in litigation, they've always gotten cold feet after protests," Roselle says.


"The Wilderness Society has never cooperated with grass-roots organizers in Idaho," agrees Ron Mitchell, of the Idaho Sportsmen's Coalition. He says his organization withdrew its direct challenge to the Cove-Mallard sales partly because it figured that the Wilderness Society's suit would accomplish the same goal.


Mitchell says pulling back from the injunction weakened the environmental cause: "It sets a precedent that environmentalists will back off if threatened with violence or challenged with financial arguments."


Roselle and Fullum attended their preliminary hearing Feb. 27. Fullum says protesters, who have been coping with waist-deep snow this winter, have earned begrudging respect from locals, after a four-year presence. Roselle adds that the new law will not dissuade protesters. "Grass-roots groups don't bow to pressure."


* Ross Freeman, HCN intern