Throwback to Salvage Logging Rider Approved in Congressional Committee

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 21, 2000 (ENS) - A Congressional conference committee has approved a measure that many environmentalists fear will bring back the salvage logging practices that sparked one of the most contentious timber sale protests in U.S. history.

The controversial measure, nicknamed the "Happy Forests" initiative, was tacked on as an amendment to the Interior Department's $18 billion appropriations bill by the joint House and Senate panel on Thursday.

Domenici

Senator Pete Domenici (Photo courtesy 1996 Domenici for Senator campaign)
Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who drafted the amendment, says the Happy Forests initiative would improve the spending bill by giving federal land managers the financial means and legislative authority to clear the nation's public lands of the "dangerous" materials that fueled this year's devastating wildfires.

"I believe we've come up with a good bill that President Clinton should sign," said Domenici, a member of the Senate's Interior Appropriations subcommittee.

"Not only does it build on our care for federal lands and national park needs, but it also launches an important effort to mitigate wildfire threats through better land management practices," Domenici said.

But the Native Forest Network and other environmental groups have derisively dubbed the Domenici initiative the "son of the salvage rider," referring to the measure approved in 1995 that temporarily suspended citizens' ability to uphold environmental laws on salvage logging in the nation's national forests.

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Fire August 6 on the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, Montana (Photo by Alaska firefighter John McColgan courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
If signed into law, Senator Domenici's Happy Forests measure would allocate to the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service approximately $240 million to be used for "fuel reduction treatments" on public lands deemed to be threatened by wildfire.

The Happy Forests funds, which Domenici originally intended to be a stand alone payout, would then be lumped in with the $1.6 billion forest health allocation recently requested by President Bill Clinton in the wake of this summer's record setting wildfires.

All summer environmentalists have been suspicious of proposals to fund a fuels reduction program, saying that such initiatives could be used to open the door for extensive logging projects on the nation's public lands.

But the Happy Forests initiative adopted this week includes an even more controversial provision. The measure would also require federal land management agencies to establish "expedited procedures" for proposed fuel reduction activities - as well as proposed salvage timber sales - that would normally have to go through the lengthy National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.

Expedited procedures would also be required under the measure for proposed logging activities that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Act requires federal land management agencies to "accord priority" to completing ESA consultations for all proposed fuel reduction projects and timber salvage sales.

Domenici maintains that the expedited review aspect of his Happy Forests initiative would not override current environmental laws.

"We've improved this initiative by requiring the administration to expedite procedures for fuel reduction in high risk, as well as post burn areas," the New Mexico Republican said.

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Logging a salvage timber sale after a 1994 fire in the Boise National Forest. Environmentalists say salvaging is more about timber company profits than about saving forests. (Photo courtesy GreenFire Productions)
Environmentalists do not buy it. They say the Happy Forests rider, if approved, will run roughshod over the NEPA process by requiring that federal land management agencies establish "expedited procedures" for environmental and public reviews of proposed fuel reduction projects and salvage sales.

"Basically, it just completely guts the whole intent of NEPA, which is to do good analysis and to involve the public," said Steve Homer, campaign coordinator for the American Lands Alliance, a national forests advocacy group. "It would truncate the usual scoping process where the public can get involved, and [land managers] would not have time to do adequate scientific analyses, nor would they have time to come up with fair alternatives."

Matthew Koehler, director of the Public Lands Project at the Montana based Native Forest Network, put it somewhat more succinctly.

"The attempts by some Western Republican lawmakers to undermine existing environmental laws and greatly increase logging in national forests represents a new low - even for those politicians who have spent their entire political careers in the back pocket of the timber industry," Koehler said.

"This is a salvage rider," Homer said of the Happy Forests measure. "This is going to make it easier for them to log on the national forests."

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Protesters form a line to block loggers' access to an Oregon forest. In suits are Brock Evans of the National Audubon Society and then Indiana Congressman Jim Jontz (Photo courtesy GreenFire Productions)
The infamous 1995 salvage rider galvanized the environmental community and generated a firestorm of public protest against what many analysts referred to as "logging without laws." Thousands of citizens participated in rallies and engaged in acts of civil disobedience.

Ground zero in the battle over the salvage logging rider was located at the Warner Creek timber sale in Oregon, where activists staged the longest blockade of a forest road in U.S. history.

By the end of the summer, more than 600 people had been arrested in conjunction with salvage timber sale protests across the west. Among those arrested was Jim Jontz, a former Indiana congressman who now heads the American Lands Alliance and serves as president of Americans for Democratic Action.

Jontz

Jim Jontz, who protested the salvage logging in the mid-1990s, still maintains it is wrong. (Photo courtesy GreenFire Productions)
"Direct action has helped to communicate the public what this terrible law is all about," Jontz said after his 1995 arrest. "It has put a human face on the issue."

Vice President Al Gore later acknowledged that signing the 1995 salvage logging rider was the worst mistake that the Clinton administration made during its first term. The rider was attached to an emergency appropriations bill that provided funds for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

President Clinton has not spoken publicly about this new forest clearing measure adopted by the Congressional conference committee this week, though he has hinted that he will not sign legislation that in any way abridges the public's ability to uphold existing environmental laws.

Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck has been more forthcoming on the issue, saying earlier this month that another salvage rider would be a "stumbling block" that could prevent federal land managers from engaging in much needed post fire rehabilitation and restoration work.

To date this year, 79,444 fires have burned 6,838,748 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The ten year average for September 22 is 65,896 fires that burned 3,118,669 acres.