The Last Frontier

The "Salvage Rider" Isn’t Saving Forests, It’s Decimating Them

“The timber wars are happening all over again,” said Bonnie Phillips of The Pilchuck Audubon Society in northwest Washington state. Two years after President Clinton offered embattled forest watchers an olive branch—the Northwest Forest Plan (supposedly assuring preservation of old-growth forests, while allowing a limited amount of logging)—peace has ended in the Pacific Northwest.

“In 10 years I’ve never seen things so polarized,” says Alex Bradley, coordinator of the Quilcene Ancient Forest Coalition, located on the Olympic Peninsula. “It’s the greatest land fraud in American history,” says Carl Ross, director of the Washington D.C.-based Save America’s Forests.

It was the 1995 rescission bill, signed into law last July by a reluctant President Clinton, that started the war. On its back it carried the now infamous one-year “timber salvage rider,” calling for the removal of trees diseased, insect-infested, dead, damaged, downed or imminently susceptible to any of those things. In effect, nearly all trees, on some 100 million acres, were made vulnerable. To expedite salvage sales compliance, oversight by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was suspended.

The salvage rider’s authors—Congressman Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) and Senator Slade Gorton (R-Kan.)—claim its purpose was to address forest health, primarily in the inland West. But environmentalists are blaming it for denuding healthy 500-year-old trees; for wholesale clearcutting, indiscriminate road building, watershed and animal habitat loss; and for contributing to such “natural” disasters as recent massive flooding in Idaho.

President Clinton has lived to regret, in his own words, “the unintended and unwarranted consequence of the way the timber rider has been carried out.” In the opinion of one Justice Department official, the bill “is one of the worst statutes affecting the environment ever passed.” A recent national poll showed 74 percent of Americans rejecting legislation that suspends environmental laws and allows old-growth forests to be clearcut.

Audubon’s Phillips says that mainstream groups that usually “work through the system” are adopting Earth First! tactics. Her group is offering summer civil disobedience training sessions for members as well as other community groups. Volunteers were also being trained to scour targeted old-growth forests for nesting sites of the endangered marbled murrelet seabird in order to stop sales.

On the Olympic Peninsula, Alex Bradley’s group, the Quilcene Ancient Forest Coalition, doubled to 100 members after passage of the timber salvage rider allowed previously outlawed sales to take 400 acres of the remaining old growth in Olympic National Forest. She watched the clearcutting of giant 250-year-old hemlocks on one 55-acre site by a mill that had a lumberyard stacked high with unsold second-growth logs. “They want the old growth for beams,” she says. Forest arrests there have become common, and Washington State college students, Earth First! activists, and even 25-year veteran Brock Evans of National Audubon have been detained.

As predicted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the logging has jeopardized a $36 million sport fishing industry where miles of roads are destined to be built with no buffers to protect streams where the prized coho salmon and searun cutthroat trout swim. “Two species of fish are hanging by a thread, and the fishing industry is in dire straits,” says Francis Eatherington, a 20-year forestry worker. According to a recent BLM report, the local fishing industry have experienced an 85 percent drop in economic benefits over the last six years as the result of clearcutting and roadbuilding.

“Without the timber industry we die as a town,” says Eartherington. “But we are not old-growth timber dependent.” Old-growth forests are needed for fire breaks, she says. “If the government would give as much money for rehabilitating our forests as they do for building roads, we could keep every job we have now.”

With 90 percent of the old-growth forests felled in the Northwest, the timber companies have stepped up their logging in the Northern Rockies. In Montana’s northwestern corner, the Kootenai National Forest was targeted for a harvest of over 100 million board feet, “more than the national forests of Colorado produced in a year,” says Jasper Carlton, director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colorado. “They’re clearcutting in a place that’s like our Serengeti. There are grizzly bears, bobcats, lynxs, wolverines, fishers, red bank and cutthroat trout.”

Federal officials defend their work. “We’re not clearcutting; we’re trying to apply the best science we can in all the logging areas,” says Bob Schrenk, from his office in Libby, Montana, where he serves as the Forest Service’s Kootenai supervisor.

Federal court challenges to salvage sales and old-growth logging by both timber companies and environmentalists have been piling up for months at the Justice Department, says Peter Koppelman, principal deputy assistant attorney general for environmental and natural resources. He blames the 104th Congress for “totally disrupting the peace. This bill has caused civil war in the forest.”