Loggers regroup for protests. Grass-roots efforts fight expansion of wilderness areas

Frustrated by the cancellation of federal timber sales and worried by proposals to increase wilderness areas in the Northwest woods, the timber industry here has reacted by fighting environmentalists with their own weapon: grass-roots protests. ``The giant is waking up and it's about time,'' says Joe Hinson, president of the Intermountain Forest Industries Association.

When a crowd of more than 600 local sawmill workers, loggers, log truckers, and their supporters crowded into the Sandpoint High School gymnasium earlier this month, it was clear something new was happening.

``Six months ago, I don't think you could have ever amassed a crowd like this,'' Mr. Hinson said.

The rally was called to protest a recent United States Forest Service decision to halt logging in roadless areas of the Panhandle National Forests of northern Idaho. It was organized by a newly formed pro-timber industry group called the Panhandle Natural Resource Council.

The timber industry in Idaho is heavily dependent on timber harvested from federally owned land. But the Forest Service is directed to manage the forests for multiple uses, so debate over land use is nearly constant here.

Dennis Baird, a representative of the Idaho Environmental Council and veteran of previous political wars over wildlands, says the timber industry has not been this active for 10 years.

``This thing reminds me of the River-of-No-Return [wilderness area] fight of 1978-79,'' Mr. Baird said.

The new activity appears to be prompted by some recent environmentalist victories and the proposed creation of new wilderness areas in Idaho and Montana.

A Senate subcommittee held a hearing last week on a bill that would create 1.4 million acres of wilderness areas and about 600,000 acres of specially managed forest lands in Idaho. In a repeat of congressional field hearings in Idaho last March, testimony was overwhelmingly negative at the hearing before the subcommittee on public lands.

Of the 15 official witnesses, only the co-authors, Gov. Cecil Andrus (D) of Idaho and Sen. James McClure (R) of Idaho, supported the bill. Witnesses representing more than 20 businesses and conservation groups criticized the bill for protecting too much or too little of Idaho's wildlands.

Montana's congressional delegation is still negotiating over boundaries outlined in a bill expected to set aside about 1.3 million acres of wilderness.

A number of recent environmentalist victories seem to have helped spark the growing protests.

Last winter, a coalition of environmentalists and tourism boosters cooperated to shut down a federal sale of timber at the southern end Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho, a tourist attraction and one of the largest lakes in the West.

Even after federal foresters drastically reduced the size of the transaction, the group continued to protest the sale to timber companies, fearing a hillside scar and disturbance of a tribe of mountain goats.

Citing public pressure and the waste of time and agency money on a year-long series of appeals, the Forest Service cancelled the sale.

Disputes over newly released forest management plans that determine which areas are best suited for recreation and timber harvests have been intense. Wilderness groups are filing administrative appeals and challenges nationwide.

After the Panhandle National Forests plan was released, a coalition of environmental groups filed an appeal that persuaded Forest Service chief Dale Robertson temporarily to ban all logging in roadless areas of the Idaho Panhandle.

The halt means a timber harvest reduction of 54 million board feet per year in the 2.5 million acres on the St. Joe, Coeur d'Alene, and Kaniksu National Forests.

In Montana loggers banded together when a March decision by the Ninth Circuit Court led to the cancellation of construction of a logging road into the Yaak region in the state's northwest corner.

Communities for a Great Northwest was formed, and it drew about 3,500 people to a pro-timber industry rally on May 3 in Libby, Mont., which has a population of less than 3,000.

In another sign of solidarity by loggers, more than 300 logging trucks rolled into Darby, Mont., in May to deliver about 1 million board feet of logs to protest a mill that had shut down.

Organizers of the Great Northwest Log Haul claimed the Darby mill was shut down because of excessive environmentalist challenges to Forest Service timber sales.

Another mill nearby is still operating with logs from the Bitterroot National Forest. There are some signs of conciliation between the two sides of the debate.

At the extreme northern tip of Idaho, members of the Boundary Backpackers and the Bonners Ferry Environmental Balance Committee have been in negotiations for more than a month over the future harvest and protection of timber in the Bonners Ferry Ranger District.

Bonners Ferry was the site last September of a 1,200-person rally to pressure the Forest Service to guarantee 45 million board feet per year of harvest from the Bonners Ferry Ranger District.

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