Log For Sale

When wildfire roared through the Boise National Forest in the drought-fueled 1994 fire season, forest Supervisor Steve Mealey wasted no time launching a monumental fire salvage plan. Mealey, known for his single-minded dedication to getting out the cut, produced the Boise River Wildfire Recovery Project -- the largest salvage logging project in the history of the Forest Service. It calls for logging 77,500 acres, including 14,700 acres within rugged roadless areas, by the end of 1996. Nearly every acre slated for logging lies within the range of the imperiled bull trout, which depends on clear, cold streams for survival. Mealey's goal: produce 236 million board feet of timber and $65 million in gross receipts, of which $34.5 million would be returned to the federal treasury. The balance would pay for sale preparation, reforestation of the burn, wildlife projects, payments to Idaho counties and reimbursements to a special fund earmarked for future salvage sales. Forest spokesman Frank Carroll predicted during a May tour of the Boise that the project would be a national model for the wave of salvage sales the Forest Service is undertaking throughout the West over the next year and a half -- and that Mealey, who is presently in charge of forest ecosystem planning for the Upper Columbia Basin, would be rewarded for his foresight by being named the next chief of the Forest Service. It looks as if the fire sale will get an extra push from a notorious salvage rider sponsored by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash. Dubbed by environmentalists the "logging without laws" rider, it will bar lawsuits and appeals challenging both salvage and "green tree" sales through December of 1996, in effect giving federal forest agencies carte blanche to disregard the nation's environmental laws. On June 29, President Clinton said he would sign the 1995 budget rescission bill that contains the rider, despite earlier promises to veto it. The bill arrived on his desk on July 24 and it appears nothing will stop the rush to salvage. Except one thing. Timber from the Boise River sale is going begging. Five sales offered at auction since May have drawn no bids. The minimum bids on those sales will likely be reduced. The ten sales sold as of June 29 drew bids 40 percent lower than expected. The Forest Service has had to downscale its economic projections for the project -- drastically. It now says gross receipts will be $40 million, not $68 million, and that the project will return just $5.5 million to the federal treasury. In fact, the economics of the Boise River project are much worse than that, according to Robert E. Wolf, former assistant chief of the Congressional Research Service's Environment and Natural Resources Division and a national expert on the federal timber sale program. Wolf, who analyzed the project for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, contends the sale will end up costing the public $36 million when the full costs of sale preparation and the lower-than-expected bids are figured in. In effect, he says, virtually the entire Boise National Forest budget is geared toward salvaging timber. "My analysis, based on Forest Service figures, shows that this sale is being subsidized by the taxpayers to the tune of $35.9 million, while the companies pay only what they think they can get away with," Wolf says. Carroll disputes Wolf's figures but concedes that the economics of the sale have changed: "The thing that drives all of this is the timber market. If the timber market isn't there, none of this will happen." As early as May the national lumber market newsletter Random Lengths took note of the current sluggish wood products market, warning that "there is simply too much production chasing too few orders." Nevertheless, Carroll continues to defend the economics of the Boise River sale, saying it will pay for reforestation and wildlife projects that would otherwise have to come out of the agency's shrinking budget. Many scientists would counter that salvage logging on lands recovering from intense wildfire will inflict new damage on fish and wildlife. A panel of leading scientists warned in a recent report that salvage logging contributes nothing to the recovery of fire-damaged forests and in fact may increase erosion and stream degradation unless it's done with great care. In the past, that hasn't been the case on the Boise, which bears scars from some of the worst wildfires in the West -- scars compounded by overzealous salvage logging of the 1989 Loman Complex burn and sloppy work on the 1992 Foothills salvage sale. Why is all of this important now? Because President Clinton is about to squander the small store of good will he built up among environmentalists when he vetoed the salvage rider the first time and set a dangerous precedent -- all to address a nonexistent timber supply and forest health "emergency." Two key congressional Democrats have broken ranks with the President to denounce the rider in the strongest terms. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., fired off a scorching press release on July 6 after he finally got a look at the rider -- the day after the House vote on the rescission bill. "The salvage rider . . . would allow logging along wild and scenic rivers and in sensitive riparian and roadless areas, with no restrictions based on slope or soil conditions. Its definition of salvage is so broad that it opens the door to wholesale logging in the region's remaining old growth forests and roadless areas," he warned. What's more, he said, the measure bans appeals and legal challenges to timber sales on federal lands covered by Option Nine, President Clinton's court-approved plan for managing forests inhabited by the northern spotted owl. Clinton forest policy spokesman Clarence Moriwaki insists that the administration has no intention of offering illegal timber sales in owl forests, rider or no rider, and will continue to "follow the President's Forest Plan to the letter." DeFazio isn't impressed. "The Clinton administration says "Trust us." But I don't trust any federal agency with the kind of unlimited power granted by this salvage amendment." In a June 28 "Dear Colleague" letter opposing the salvage rider, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, referred to the Boise River sale when he said, "the reality is that the Forest Service cannot get bids on all the sales it has offered." He also noted that Oregon and Washington have gained 4,000 forest products jobs in the past two years and cited new evidence that public forests in the West are actually healthier than industry lands. "Now, when the data shows that the industry is doing well, the public forests are relatively healthy, timber supply appears sufficient, and jobs are on the rise, why should Congress suspend environmental laws?" he asked. It's an excellent question. But in these times, facts get lost and symbols take on a life of their own. The salvage logging rider is a symbol, a triumph of the world view that says dead trees are good for only one thing. It will be the ultimate irony if a sluggish wood products market accomplishes what the science and logic arrayed against wholesale salvage logging have failed to do.

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