Cut to the past: logging wars resume

  • Protesters at the Roman Dunn timber sale in Oregon

    Chris Pietsch

Less than three years after the Clinton administration devised a plan to protect most of the remaining ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, the big trees have started to fall again.

Taking advantage of an obscure provision in a salvage logging bill recently signed by the president, loggers have begun cutting healthy old-growth forests west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon. Many of the timber sales now being released by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management were withdrawn to protect endangered wildlife and fragile old-growth ecosystems.

Over the next 18 months, timber companies will cut up to 650 million board-feet of timber. That is less than the 750 million board-feet the Clinton administration has released under the President's Northwest Forest Plan, and nowhere near the 4 billion board-feet per year cut during the peak years of the 1980s. Nevertheless, the new wave of logging - exempt from citizen appeals and most environmental laws - has reignited the smoldering embers of past timber wars.

Protesters have clashed with loggers at several sites, with dozens arrested for acts of civil disobedience. The timber industry has taken the Clinton administration to court to ensure that it gets as much as it can. Meanwhile, the administration, which has put so much political capital into resolving the conflict, is desperately looking for a way to placate irate environmentalists and keep its timber plan from unraveling.

"The region had made big strides in putting the timber wars behind it," says Adam Berger, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Seattle. "Option 9 (the president's plan) didn't please anyone, but it signaled the end to a very painful period. Now the rider has reopened those wounds. This short-term raid is going to be a very divisive and unnecessary step backward."

Salvage opened the door

The salvage rider was generally understood to accelerate the cutting of burned and diseased trees in national forests across the country. But it also forced the agency to release dozens of green, old-growth timber sales in the Northwest, sales that had been offered, but not cut, under a 1989 logging rider known as section 318.

That law called for the cutting of some 8 billion board-feet of old-growth timber. But sales totaling nearly 400 million board-feet were not cut. The land agencies halted many of those sales to protect the threatened marbled murrelet, a pigeon-sized, ocean-going bird that nests in old trees along the coast.

The rider says all of the section 318 sales must be cut with the exception of those known to harbor nests of the marbled murrelet. And if federal land managers halt some sales for the bird, they must make timber of similar quality and quantity available elsewhere.

Shortly after the salvage logging bill became law, the administration and the timber industry began a tug-of-war over the interpretation of its green timber provisions. In late July, a handful of Western Republicans wrote to the Clinton administration demanding that the Forest Service release all sales that had been held up since 1990 in Washington and Oregon, not just the remaining 318 sales.

This broader interpretation of the rider's language would force the land agencies to cut additional green timber sales totaling another 250 million board-feet.

When the Clinton administration balked, the timber industry sued, and on Sept. 13, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan agreed with the industry. But the administration has not offered the timber yet, claiming that Hogan's ruling fell short of an actual order.

The timber industry quickly filed contempt of court charges against Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons and Tom Tuchman, the White House's point man on Northwest forest policy. In addition, industry officials urged the judge to imprison the men.

"I have never seen such a blatant attempt to harass and intimidate the federal agencies," says Berger. "The timber industry wants it all."

Chris West, who represents the Northwest Forestry Association, one of the plaintiffs, says the industry is simply trying to survive until the Clinton administration lives up to its promise of 1 billion board-feet per year for the region. So far, the Forest Service has offered less than half of the target, he says.

"In the big picture, 650 million board-feet is miniscule," says West. "We're only talking about cutting 11,000 acres. The president's plan covers 24 million acres. This is just a bridge for the companies until the president's plan is implemented."

Clarence Moriowaki, an administration spokesman in Portland, questions the industry's motives. Its court challenges are not based on a supply crisis, he says, because the market is soft. "The timber industry already has more than a half a billion board-feet under contract that it has not yet cut. It is just sitting on that timber waiting for the price to go up."

President's plan in jeopardy

The timber industry's aggressive tactics may upset the precarious balance struck by the president's Northwest Forest Plan.

Drafted in 1993 and upheld in court in April 1994, the plan set up a 7 million-acre system of old-growth preserves, where most logging is prohibited. It also protected another 2 million acres of streamside land to safeguard watersheds and fish and wildlife habitat. Moriowaki says the rider will force logging in these areas.

What's really happening, he says, is that "some individuals want to break (the president's plan)."

Environmentalists agree the plan may be in trouble. When Judge William Dwyer ruled last year that the president's forest plan was legal, he noted that any deviations from its prescriptions could change his mind. "Given how close to the line Option 9 is, these sales could certainly affect the scientific and legal foundation of the president's plan," Berger says.

Chris West reads the political landscape differently. He says the salvage rider was not designed to undercut the president's plan, but to free the administration from financial liability. Timber companies hold $100 million worth of timber contracts for uncut sales released under the rider. If these contracts are not honored, the government must buy them out, West says.

The real reason the administration is dragging its feet on releasing timber, West says, is because "it got beat up pretty bad by the environmental community for signing the salvage rider and is trying to buy some favors back. But the bottom line is that the president signed it."

Only time will tell

When looked at with a sense of history, the size of the current old-growth battle doesn't look so bad. Judge Dwyer's 1991 court injunction halting logging in spotted owl forests throughout the region seems to have permanently altered the reality for the timber industry. No less a timber backer than Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who championed the salvage rider, acknowledges that the days of 4 billion board-feet a year harvests are gone, says Andy Stahl, head of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

"But that doesn't mean that each of the timber sales slated for cutting aren't unique and special places," Stahl says. And it doesn't foreclose another industry run at the ancient forests if a sympathetic Republican president gets elected in 1996, he says.

"A Republican administration and Congress will be the full test of whether the pendulum has swung permanently," he says. "I believe that with our (the Northwest's) vigorous and diverse economy, with the new people and increasing urbanization, we have become unhinged from the timber industry. It's just not a major economic force anymore."

Other environmentalists aren't so sure.

"This fight is about something much broader than site-specific logging," says Victor Rozek of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore. "It's about the ability of very wealthy people - the timber companies - to suspend laws with which they disagree. That's what scares me."

Despite the potential loss of 11,000 acres of primeval forest over the next 18 months, even Rozek says he sees cause for hope. "I see a lot of angry people now," he says, "where before I just saw despair."

For now, an environmental community without access to the courts will try to win the war of words and images.

"We're going to raise a lot of stink in the media," says Adam Berger. "The media have become a replacement for the court system, and that's where the information and evidence will be presented and examined."

Paul Larmer, HCN associate editor

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