The salvage rider - down, but not quite out

 

For environmentalists concerned about public forests, this was supposed to the summer of dread. Timber companies, shielded by a salvage logging law, were expected to have a free-for-all on thousands of acres of roadless land. But now, with summer half over, environmentalists have reason for optimism. They may even salvage a victory.

Congress passed the Emergency Salvage Timber Sale Program last year as an addition to the Oklahoma City disaster relief bill. The so-called salvage rider expedites the removal of "dead, damaged, or down" trees by exempting these sales from most environmental laws, court appeals and public participation. Backers of the controversial program claim that these time-saving exemptions are needed to forestall imminent fires and insect infestations. Environmentalists argue the rider has also expedited the removal of healthy, living trees. They call it "logging without laws."

Once thought unbeatable, the salvage rider has taken small hits from all three branches of government in less than a month. "It took time for public opinion against the logging rider to rise to the surface," says Steve Whitney of The Wilderness Society. "But it did."

The most effective blow came from the executive branch. In a July 2 memo, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman directed Jack Ward Thomas, chief of the Forest Service, to make sure that "emergency" logging is truly emergency in nature.

Glickman recommended greater public participation, prohibited most sales in roadless areas, and required the Forest Service to document the percentage of dead vs. green timber and provide a "clear explanation and rationale for harvesting the green volume." Any sale containing more than 25 percent living trees must undergo further scrutiny, he added. The directive is a stop-gap until an inter-agency review of the salvage program presents its findings next month.

The secretary's directive had an immediate impact in Idaho, where on July 3 the Boise National Forest reclassified its proposed Deadwood Salvage Sales as non-emergency sales. This proposal to log in a roadless area must now go through the normal environmental review process.

"This is a major victory for the conservation community, wildlife and wildlands," responded John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League. Out of hundreds of emergency salvage sales in the West, Deadwood was only the third to be shelved, but the first following Glickman's action. The Inland Empire Public Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group, estimates that at least 26 sales are now eligible for cancellation.

The directive came on the heels of a close vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to de-fund the salvage rider. Sponsored by Reps. Elizabeth Furse, D-Ore., and John Porter, R-Ill., the amendment failed by a hair's breadth, 209-211, on June 20. Heartened by the near-win, environmentalists are gathering support for a similar amendment in the Senate.

Also in June, the judicial branch successfully constricted the logging allowed by the rider. Though best known for speeding up salvage logging, the rider also reopened green timber sales originally offered under a 1989 logging rider known as Section 318. Some of these sales contain nesting habitat for the marbled murrelet, a threatened sea bird (HCN, 6/10/96).

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals moved to protect the murrelet by canceling 45 percent of these 318 sales - more than 4,000 acres of Northwest old growth. That's good news for environmentalists, but "the (ruling) on the murrelet does not solve the problems caused by the rider," said Jim Jontz, executive director of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. "In fact, the problems are only beginning."

That's because the lost 318 sales must, in the words of the salvage rider, be replaced by "an equal volume of timber, of like kind and value." How will the Forest Service provide that timber? The agency admits it's just beginning to figure that out. "They've known about (the requirements of the rider) since last summer," counters Chris West of the Northwest Forest Association, an industry group. "They shouldn't have any problem - there's lots of (sales) out there that won't jeopardize the endangered species."

It's unclear whether any of the replacement sales will occur before Section 318's exemption from most environmental laws expires Sept. 30. The salvage component of the rider runs until the end of the year, or until Congress decides to revoke its funding.

Or another possibility: Congress may give the salvage rider a second life. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has spearheaded an effort to retain the rider's key features in a permanent salvage timber program. His proposed Federal Lands Forest Health Protection and Restoration Act hasn't hit the floor of Congress, but it cleared committee on June 19, the day before environmentalists lost their vote in the House.

* Jared Farmer, HCN intern

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