Albion Monitor /Features

Minutes Before Midnight: The Salvage Rider

by Philip E. Daoust

The "salvage rider" has outraged environmentalists across the nation

Turn back the clock to last July; the nation is grieving for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, and under Congressional pressure, President Clinton signed the Recission Act -- otherwise known as the 1995 budget bill -- which will provide disaster funds for the mourning families as well as flood victims in California.

But there was another amendment attached to the bill which has set off a fury of debate about the future of America's national forests. That amendment, known as the "salvage rider," has outraged environmentalists across the nation.

In days that followed, the White House switchboard reported that it received 60,000 calls from the public who were against the rider -- supposedly the most on any issue since Clinton has been in office.

Ever since the law went into effect, environmental groups, government agencies and the timber industry have been fighting it out in the courts, on Capitol Hill and through the media for control of what will happen to America's national forest lands, particularily old-growth forests.

In Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, 85 percent of the trees logged were healthy

Thriving forests covered much of the North American continent when the Europeans arrived on the eastern shores, eventually moving West in one of history's largest mass migrations. But in the last 150 years, the American forests have been cut down at a maddening rate, leaving only small pockets of old-growth forests.

Now much of the remaining 4 percent of old-growth forests in the United States are locked in a fight between environmental and timber interests.

The rider allows logging companies to cut any trees deemed "imminently susceptible to fire or insect attack," including healthy trees 1,000 years old.

The federal government is required by the rider to sell off large tracts of so-called "dead and dying trees" in national forests across the country to timber companies this year. But the law also permits "associated trees" to be cut down within the areas sold and suspends environmental laws.

Environmentalists argue that "associated trees" means healthy trees can be logged without compliance to provisions in environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act -- laws that help protect America's river and stream systems as well as fragile habitats for at risk plant and animal species.

As an example, a recent salvage sale in Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest consisted of a tract of forest where 85 percent of the trees logged were healthy.

A number of recent cases across the country regarding the sale of national forest land demonstrate the increasing urgency of the issue:

  • In Alaska, small business leaders are trying to save timberlands for tourism dollars.

  • In Washington state, an environmental group made the highest bid on a tract of forest scheduled for clear cutting, but their offer was turned down by the Forest Service.

  • The Forest Service itself is facing allegations that it has acted improperly in dealing with one of the largest logging companies in the nation.

  • "Any tree made of wood" could be harvested

    Already, nearly half of the national forest land timber designated for sale under the rider been sold, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Timber companies have already purchased approximately 2 billion of an estimated 4.5 billion board feet of timber slated to be logged this year, Aaron O'Connor, a Forest Service spokesperson in Washington, D.C. said Friday.

    The language in the rider that defines "salvage timber" is so loose that Sen. Bill Bradley (D-New Jersey), argued "any tree made of wood" could be harvested.

    Environmental groups have sounded the alarm to the American public, warning that the last stands of old-growth national forest will be decimated unless Congress and the White House are pressured to repeal the law soon.

    "The timber industry is moving as fast as it can to buy up the forest lands and cut them down," according to Bill Arthur, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club's Northwest region.

    Some environmentalists believe the Clinton administration orchestrated the vote

    Clinton administration officials now claim they were "snookered" into signing the bill because of pressure to resolve the 1995 fiscal year budget dispute. In a recent campaign swing to Washington state, where devastating floods were partially blamed for increased clear-cutting in national forest lands, Clinton said he made a "mistake" and would like the rider repealed in Congress.

    But last month, the Senate, lead by a majority of Republicans, voted 54-42 to defeat an amendment by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), that would have repealed the salvage rider. Murray's bill would have allowed the logging of dead and dying trees and put a permanent end to logging of healthy forests.

    Another added provision keeps federal offices operational if a government shutdown should occur, requiring the Forest Service to speed up the timber sales without providing the funds to do so.

    Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon), pursued key votes in the senate to defeat the Murray bill and suggested that the Clinton administration was trying to win votes.

    Some environmentalists believe the Clinton administration orchestrated the vote knowing it would not pass, but with the intention of appeasing voters who were upset the president signed the salvage rider.

    Taxpayers would have to reimburse the timber companies if logging is cancelled

    Despite the recent setbacks for environmentalists, there may be a new breath of life for the repeal movement in the Republican controlled Congress, Sierra Club lobbyist Arthur said.

    There appears to be growing support for repeal in the House of Representatives. Rep. John Casage (R-Ohio), chairman of the budget committee and a key Republican leader, has co-sponsored a bill drafted by Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-Oregon), that is a straight forward repeal of the salvage rider, said Arthur.

    At the time Congress broke for the spring recess last Friday, there were already 135 co-sponsors of Furse's bill.

    "For right now the issue is dead in the Senate," Arthur said, "but the House (of Representatives) may be forced to repeal the rider. "

    Also, the President has "leeway" to trade out and even cancel some of the sales already made under a provision in the rider, he said. The taxpayers would have to reimburse the timber companies for operating expenses, but it is not entirely clear whether the government would have to pay a premium price or the salvage price for the timber.

    Sen. Gorton, who was a key legislator in pushing the salvage rider through Congress, argued that delaying old contracts could cost the government as much as $150 million to settle termination claims, even though the Congressional Research Service estimated the figure to be closer to $35 million. Clinton has asked for the Senate for $50 million, however.

    Some in Congress are urging the President to rescue areas of the most pristine old-growth as soon as possible. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), has pressed the administration to act quickly in making timber swaps to save old-growth.

    But critics argue that the swaps would have to comply with Clinton's forest management plan, upheld as recently as last week in U.S. District Court. DeFazio said it is impossible because the timber must be harvested before the September 31 deadline, not leaving enough time for procedures in the plan to be implemented.

    Suspending environmental laws for less crucial forest land is preferable to losing the last large tracts of old-growth forests, DeFazio said. He and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) recently wrote the president asking him to consider their plan.

    Furse has also urged Clinton to exercise his right to cancel the timber contracts if negotiators from the opposing sides cannot agree on alternative sites to be harvested.

    Last week, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said that the administration wanted to make it "perfectly clear" that it "is exercising every option" available to prevent the logging of sensitive old-growth forests, citing two timber sales in Oregon's Umpqua National Forest, where 1,000 year old trees are at risk.

    Glickman signed an emergency order allowing the Forest Service to offer timber companies trades of timber in less fragile forests for the old-growth stands. The decision could reinstate a delay on some Pacific Northwest logging that was released to be cut when the rider was signed into law.

    But some environmental groups view the order as too little, too late. Steve Holmer, a spokesperson for the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, said the administration could have done something months ago.

    In a statement that some critics believe was directed to reassure the timber industry, Glickman stated that the agency is complying with the provisions of the salvage rider.

    "The Forest Service is not dragging its heels on salvage timber sales. The numbers show that we are ahead of schedule," Glickman said.

    "Timber companies have bought Congress"

    Meanwhile, pressure upon Congress and the White House continues to build. From environmentalists comes pressure to repeal the salvage logging rules. At the same time, the logging companies are pressuring those same politicians to leave the rider as it is.

    "We want to repeal the rider as quickly as possible," said Carl Ross, director of Save America's Forests, "because the sales made now may be exempt from environmental laws years after the rider expires."

    "Timber companies have bought Congress," he added. "They are so rich and have so much control in Washington that they can get exactly what they want at the public's expense."

    Ross also predicted that timber in the national wildnerness areas will be the next target of the timber industry.

    "They will go after the national wilderness areas after they're finished with the national forests," he said.

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    Albion Monitor April 15, 1996 (

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