Unsaddle that 'Rider'

AMONG the unfinished pieces of business as Congress returns to work this week is a ''rider'' amendment on the multibillion-dollar recisions bills now in conference between the House and Senate.

This ''rider,'' which throws national forest land open to a broad definition of ''salvage logging,'' could well gallop through to enactment under cover of the deficit-fighting legislation it's attached to. But that would be a sad commentary on business as usual in this reform-minded Congress.

The salvage-logging amendment is touted by supporters as an emergency measure designed to upgrade forest lands affected by fire or insects. Clearing downed or damaged trees, they argue, will decrease the likelihood of future forest fires.

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Questions about the best methods of protecting forests, whether through vigorous fire-prevention or allowing some burning, are certainly open. And salvage operations to clear away congested lands may have their place. They are part of present policy.

But the legislation before Congress has little to do with those issues. Rather, it's a thinly veiled attempt to open thousands more acres of federal lands to loosely regulated logging.

The ''riders'' would waive, for 18 months, compliance with environmental laws that normally govern logging on federal lands. Their flexible definition of ''salvage'' would allow the taking of healthy trees ''associated'' with damaged ones. The main beneficiaries will not be the millions of citizens who enjoy outings in healthy forest environments, or the fire-fighters who have to jump into those areas to battle blazes, but the lumber companies who would profit, yet again, from the government's largess.

That largess includes taxpayer dollars spent on building roads into otherwise inaccessible forest lands so that the timber can be sold well below the true cost of getting it out.

The salvage-logging amendments, to sum up, are neither economically nor ecologically sound. They'll burn up more federal dollars under the cover of recision bills designed to cut federal spending, and they'll result in more expanses of post-logging slash, which is prime forest-fire kindling.

To keep its environmental colors aloft, the Clinton administration should unequivocally oppose these measures.

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