Often called the worst environmental legislation to emerge from the 104th Congress, the salvage law could soon become a litmus test for President Clinton and lawmakers hoping to distance themselves from the GOP's anti-environmental agenda.
Now there's counter-legislation: a repeal bill introduced Dec. 7 by Rep. Elizabeth Furse, D-Ore., and Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md. It would halt action by the Forest Service to accelerate the sales of dead, dying and disease-prone timber on national forests. It would also allow environmentalists to once again appeal salvage sales and to take the Forest Service to court. The bill had 55 co-sponsors by mid-December, including four moderate Republicans.
The timber industry says the law doesn't need to be repealed, just implemented faster and with less bureaucracy. "The Forest Service hasn't sped things up enough," says Bob Blanford, a resource manager for Louisiana-Pacific. "There's still some sentiment within the administration not to sell timber ...."
But timber companies have failed to bid on several of the sales offered in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Critics say that proves industry doesn't need the timber. Environmentalists contend that to make the sales more enticing, the Forest Service is using the salvage rider to offer once-unacceptable sales at a loss to taxpayers, including many sales with large amounts of green timber or in roadless areas.
"I don't think the industry ever wanted sales that require the use of expensive helicopters to take out fire-blackened timber," says Andy Stahl, executive director of the Association for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. What industry really wanted, he says, was to use the rider to punch roads into roadless areas and thereby foreclose the wilderness option.
Because the typical methods of challenging timber sales have been suspended, environmentalists have staged protests and increased forest monitoring as the first sales trickle out. They have also tried the courts - unsuccessfully so far.
Grassroots groups such as Montana-based Citizens Against Lawless Logging, a group that formed the day after the rider passed, began beating the drum for a repeal almost immediately. But it wasn't until November, when Clinton said he would seek a legislative fix to the bill he had vetoed once before signing, that activists began to believe they could make it happen.
Clinton's distress over the bill was directed at a court decision which found that the rider also mandated the sale of dozens of healthy, old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, including tracts the President had protected under his 1993 Northwest Forest plan (HCN, 11/13/95).
Furse picked up on this theme when she introduced her legislation Dec. 7: "Members of Congress were misled. The rider was supposed to be an emergency management measure to protect the health of the forest by harvesting dead and dying timber. But instead, it's being used to clear-cut healthy forests - some as old as 500 years."
Environmentalists hold a slim hope that Clinton will slip legislation repealing the rider - partially or even totally - into the ongoing budget negotiations with the Republican leadership. A total repeal faces a tough battle in the GOP-controlled Congress, especially since some Western Democrats say they don't want to waste time on an already decided issue. Many think Clinton will simply try to fix the worst part of the law dealing with the Pacific Northwest, an important region for him during the next election.
"That's not good enough," says Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "The whole damn thing needs to be repealed."
To Chris West of the Northwest Forest Timber Association, any talk of a repeal is "pure politics. The administration knew what was in this bill from the start."
Whether members of Congress truly misunderstood the scope of the bill, those eager to prove themselves friends of the environment during an election year may use that argument to justify switching their vote. It's up to environmentalists to put the heat on the legislators, says Kerr. "All these guys are is weather vanes. It's our job to make the wind blow the right way."
* Elizabeth Manning and