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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Timber Salvage Logging Rider: Dead or Alive

Air Date: Week of

The Timber Salvage Rider is meant to allow for the removal of dead trees to prevent large forest fires. But another type of firestorm seems to have been kindled. Ley Garnett of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on the controversial law that permits timber companies to take old growth forest trees, despite their presidentially protected status, due to a legal ruling.


CURWOOD: Under pressure from Congress last summer, President Clinton signed a bill which temporarily waived environmental laws covering certain tracts of old growth national forest in the west. Supporters claimed it was supposed to allow the one-time harvest of dead and damaged trees, so called salvage logging. Critics said it would open up some crucial old growth stands to wholesale logging. And so far the critics seem to be right. Logging companies have gotten a green light to go ahead with at least 11 timber sales that had been canceled to protect fish and wildlife. Now the salvage logging law has become the biggest environmental battleground in the Northwest, and it's bubbling back up in Congress as well. Ley Garnett of Oregon Public Radio reports from Portland.

(A chainsaw runs.)

GARNETT: At an office in downtown Portland, leaders of several environmental organizations are viewing a videotape of recent logging operations in the Northwest. Among them is Rick Brown. He's with the western office of the National Wildlife Federation, and as he watches large old growth trees fall to the chainsaw, Brown has a sick look on his face.

BROWN: I think what this video footage demonstrates, it really just gives you a glimpse of some of what we're already seeing and what we're going to see to a much greater extent over the course of the next year and a half if this rider stays in effect.

GARNETT: The rider Brown refers to is called the Timber Salvage Logging Rider, an amendment attached to the budget bill passed by Congress last July. The salvage rider exempts timber sales from most environmental laws. It's opened up for logging old growth forests thought protected under the President's 1992 Northwest Forest Plan. At several sites across the country, cutting is once again underway, and so are protests.

(Protesters shouting: "Repeal the salvage rider! Repeal the salvage rider!")

GARNETT: The salvage rider has re-ignited the war over the Northwest's forests. At logging sites, acts of civil disobedience have led to the arrests of hundreds of people, including one 67 year old woman who attached her head to a logging truck with a bicycle lock to prevent it from hauling trees away.

(Protesters keep shouting.)

GARNETT: At this protest, one of several held recently in Oregon, several dozen students marched from their high school to the Federal Building in Eugene. Student organizer Molly Keogh.

KEOGH: It's senseless logging. It's cutting old growth. It's cutting things that are perfect healthy, and it's totally ridiculous.

GARNETT: Ending the march at the Federal Courthouse was symbolic. Environmentalists say decisions from Federal Judge Michael Hogan have made the salvage law more sinister. Hogan, appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, is considered the most conservative Federal Judge in Oregon. He's largely sided with the timber industry in court battles over forest issues. And late last year, Hogan sparked controversy by ruling that the salvage rider applies to all timber sales since 1990, regardless if the trees are dead or alive. The decision shocked environmentalists. But Chris West of the Northwest Forestry Association, a leading timber trade group, says anyone who followed the debate knew all along that green trees were included in the rider.

WEST: This issue was, and provision, was debated heavily in committee and on the floor of both the House and the Senate. The Administration tried to negotiate changes to the specific provisions. So members of Congress and the Administration knew specifically what was in this legislation.

GARNETT: West says salvage logging would prevent a reoccurrence of the catastrophic fires that raged through western states in 1994. With another dry season approaching, dead wood from Northwest forests has to be removed, West asserts, but he says lawsuits from environmentalists have held up sales of timber tracts.

WEST: If the Forest Service had been required to go through the lengthy review processes and be subject to appeals and litigation, the chances of salvage sales being acted on in a timely fashion was very unlikely.

GARNETT: In Washington, DC, efforts are underway to repeal or amend the salvage rider. In a White House press release, President Clinton said he wanted Congress to correct what he called the extreme results of court decisions expanding logging to ancient trees. On a recent visit to Portland, the President told reporters that the salvage rider has gone too far.

WOMAN: Repeal the salvage rider.

CLINTON: Oh, we're trying to. We're doing our very best to do it. And I think there's a lot of -- you know, I think even some of the people who were for it now realize all they did was create a lot of legal tangles. I hope we can get some progress on it. It's interesting you said that, just yesterday I had a meeting about it. We're working on it.

GARNETT: New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley and California Democrat Barbara Boxer will introduce a measure in the Senate to repeal the salvage rider altogether. It's modeled after a House bill filed by Oregon Democrat Elizabeth Furse, who says Congress was misled about the scope of the rider.

FURSE: First of all, Congress was told this was an emergency measure to get out dead and dying trees. We were told it was such an emergency that it was stuck on a bill at 10:30 at night, a bill to fund the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

GARNETT: Meanwhile, some Northwest Republicans appear to be reacting to charges of environmental insensitivity. Washington Senator Slade Gorton, a strong proponent of the salvage law, is reportedly discussing a toned down version of the rider as an amendment to an upcoming Interior bill, which would reduce the extent of old growth logging. On the other hand, Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho is proposing what he calls the Forest Health Bill. The Legislation would essentially extend the salvage rider past the end of this year, when it's scheduled to expire. The prospect of continued cutting of old growth trees scares the National Wildlife Federation's Rick Brown.

BROWN: Lots of big green trees, marble murrelet habitat, spotted owl habitat, salmon habitat, going down without proper environmental considerations. A whole lot of destructive of logging happening in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana, in particular under the guise of salvage.

GARNETT: As the Northwest mountain snow packs melt, more and more tracts of timber will become accessible to loggers, and some environmentalists say they won't wait to see if the salvage rider can be overturned in the courts or repealed in Congress. A spring offensive, they say, will happen, including acts of equipment sabotage. Chad Hanson is a member of the militant splinter group of the Sierra Club calling itself The John Muir Sierrans.

HANSEN: Collapses of entire civilizations have followed intense deforestation. This is something we rely upon for fresh water, clean air, and everything, just our basic survival. I think that it's perfectly appropriate for people to put their bodies on the line to block these timber sales.

GARNETT: Most mainstream environmental groups don't want to go beyond demonstrations of civil disobedience, but even some moderates say the salvage law has turned back the clock, and if the political system doesn't work for them, they seem willing to revert to the streets or the woods. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.



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