For a long time I was a critic of the Thunderbolt timber sale on the Payette and Boise national forests in Idaho. Its real name was the "Thunderbolt Watershed Restoration Project" because its intent, the public was told, was to help salmon.
But it seemed like a timber sale since it called for 3,300 acres of logging in two areas without roads.
So, initially, like most environmentalists, I opposed cutting trees that had been off limits to timber companies for 30 years. Did it make sense, I wondered, to cut more than half the trees above spawning beds? My skepticism was also shared; opposition to the Thunderbolt sale on the South Fork of the Salmon River weighed in from seemingly everywhere: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Idaho Fish and Game, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission and the EPA.
Could they all be wrong? For months last year the critics had me on their side. First, there was the problem of landslides attributed to logging. Back in the 1960s, slides almost wiped out chinook salmon in this most productive river in the entire Columbia River Basin.
Then there was the nagging problem with the Forest Service's pitifully weak analysis, which was spearheaded by the local ranger and Boise Forest supervisor. Hoping to gain support, they sent around Thunderbolt's internal fisheries analysis for peer review by scientists at several agencies. The panel reported back that the timber sale failed to pass muster.
Then there was the opinion of Dave Burns, lead fisheries biologist for the Payette National Forest. He said his agency justified the logging only by circular reasoning, incorrect scientific procedure, value-laden terminology, and illogical statements. Whew!
Some agencies critical of Thunderbolt even tried to persuade the Forest Service to undertake its "restoration" without logging and road-building. They also offered to pay for it. No dice. Perhaps taking charity just didn't seem right for a can-do outfit like the Forest Service.
So, I had to admit that this timber sale really was, well, flawed. And as the months passed, nothing convinced me to change my mind.
But for once I refused to focus only on the downside. If the giant Boise Cascade Corp. saw a lot to praise, maybe I could, too. Boise Cascade wrote the Forest Service that an enormous challenge faced us all - the challenge to restore chinook salmon to their rightful place as a vibrant forest creature.
"We cannot forget that the drainage needs much more action if we are to be successful in restoring healthy salmon runs," according to Boise Cascade. But company officials went on to suggest that the sale should be tractor-logged and not helicopter-logged, as flying trees out of the forest is very costly. That would mean there would be less money available to help fish.
Further revenue drains were also identified: having to leave behind too many "wildlife trees' and not being able to log right up to the streambank. Boise Cascade reminded the Forest Service that "salvage operations within riparian habitat conservation areas may well enhance or reduce potential damage to the fish."
For its part, the Forest Service said this was no average logging project; proceeds would be donated to restoring chinook habitat in the sale area. For example, the roads which logging trucks will be traveling down will get new gravel surfaces. Just try to pay for that without doing a huge logging project!
Meanwhile, Idaho's Sen. Larry Craig, R, was not silent on the opportunities Thunderbolt provided or the trouble caused by its unaccountable delays. "If the Environmental Protection Agency had not opposed this sale, the watershed work to help Idaho's salmon would probably already be done," he told the Associated Press.
Finally, after almost a year, a resolution. Last November, the carping critics lost and Boise National Forest Supervisor David Rittenhouse sold Thunderbolt for approximately one-half its advertised value. (Nobody would buy it the first time around.) But Rittenhouse was happy: "We can move forward with projects that benefit salmon."
That did it; I've stopped sounding like such a nay-sayer, and now I'm happy, too. Chinook salmon are crying out for our help, but for some reason it seems the only people who can hear them are a few determined Forest Service officials and Boise Cascade. Logging is good for salmon. Why can't more people understand that?
Take my advice: If you want to help chinook salmon, go out right now and buy as much lumber as you can afford, and be quick about it. You say you care about fish? Then get off your butt and build something. Salmon are in trouble, and there are trees to be lopped.
Activist and freelance writer Erik Ryberg lives in Fruitvale, Idaho, where he tries to make sense of things.
Boise Cascade has begun logging the Thunderbolt sale. Environmentalists are in court trying to stop it. For more information, call the Idaho Conservation League, 208/345-6933.