Behind 'Christmas Rush' to Cut West's Scrap Trees Chainsaws Still Roar as Salvage-Logging Deadline Draws Near

Article excerpt

Facing a year-end deadline, the US Forest Service is rushing to push through what environmentalists have labeled a "Christmas rush" of timber sales on federal lands.

Despite claims by White House officials that they have moved to block any surge in cutting, more than 50 sales were put on the auction block this month.

The last-minute sales are an attempt to take advantage of an exception in the law governing "salvage logging" - the harvesting of dead and dying trees. The special rule, which runs out at the end of the year, allows companies to harvest salvage timber if it aids the protection of "forest health." Timber companies say they are doing just that, but environmentalists say they are abusing the exemption to cut live trees as well. A coalition of more than 100 environmental and other citizens' organizations have called on President Clinton to halt the timber sales, many of which will take place in old-growth forests in the West. They dismiss claims by administration officials that they lack the authority to put the brakes on these contracts. "Clearly the administration would like everyone to believe all the problems are over - and they're not," says Jim Jontz, a former congressman from Indiana and executive director of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. The organization has publicized a list of some 52 auctions in December, most of them in national forests in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana. From its first to its last days, the salvage-logging bill has lived up to its reputation as one of the nation's most controversial environmental issues. Since its passage in the spring of 1995, the law has prompted protests on logging roads and vast lobbying efforts by conservationists for whom it became the symbol of the Republican-led Congress's attempts to roll back decades of environmental protection. Salvage logging has also been a source of tension between environmental groups and the Clinton administration after the president signed the spending bill carrying the salvage-logging law. For many activists, that decision epitomizes the gap between its pro-environment rhetoric and its actions. "With regard to forests, the administration has talked one line and done something else," says Mr. Jontz. With the rider set to expire on Dec. 31, the administration is eager to repair the political damage. Fearful of a rush of sales in the rider's final days, James Lyons, the undersecretary of Agriculture, instructed the Forest Service on Dec. 13 to cease all further advertising of salvage sales. "We didn't want to put more {sales} in the hopper," Mr. Lyons says from Washington in an interview. …