AFTER years of political and legal bickering over logging in the West, Republicans and some Democrats in Congress are pushing hard to put more lumberjacks and mill workers to work by focusing on tree-cutting as the answer to improving forest health.
A House committee has ordered the United States Forest Service to sharply increase salvage logging in areas hit by fire. The full House has approved a two-year moratorium on listing endangered species such as the northern spotted owl (which has been a key factor in the decline of timber production on federal lands in the West).
In the Senate, Larry Craig (R) of Idaho has begun a series of what will be at least 10 hearings around the country on federal forest management. His ''Federal Lands Forest Health Protection and Restoration Act'' calls for designation of forests with ''health emergencies'' or other problems putting them at ''high risk.'' These are areas with many dead or dying trees due to fire, insects, or disease.
Under Senator Craig's bill, decisions by federal agencies to allow timber-cutting in such areas would be accelerated by shortening the time for endangered-species consultation and by limiting the time and places for legal appeals.
Under exiting laws, the Forest Service can order salvage logging in fire-damaged areas that otherwise would not be open to timber companies. Legislation proposed by Craig and other lawmakers in essence would expand this program and speed it up.
''It has become increasingly clear that the 4 million acres of unhealthy forests which burned last summer, costing the federal government nearly $1 billion to suppress, stand as testament to what may follow over the next several decades,'' Craig said in introducing his legislation. ''Unless we act decisively to restore the health of our forests, we will continue to witness their destruction by wildfire.''
Noting that the Forest Service has been under legal attack by both environmentalists and the timber industry, Craig is trying to be inclusive -- by inviting all parties to take part in the public hearings, and also by addressing environmental and economic issues evenhandedly.
''As forest-health activities are implemented, benefits will be gained for fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, scenic values and for all components of the ecosystem,'' he says. ''At the same time, the activities needed to accomplish that end will generate forest products, jobs, and economic returns to the local communities which have been badly hurt by the shrunken timber supply.''
Not everyone agrees that recent wildfires have caused ''health emergencies'' in national forests, however, or that salvage logging is a good thing.
''By acting quickly, we run the risk of creating new problems before we solve the old ones,'' warns a group of scientists from Oregon State University, the University of Montana, the University of Washington, and Idaho State University.
In fact, these forest experts state in a report released last week, ''human intervention on the post-fire landscape may substantially or completely delay recovery, remove the elements of recovery, or accentuate the damage.''
The problem with logging on burned areas, according to this view, is that heavy equipment causes soil compaction, erosion, and sedimentation of streams.
To lessen such damage in areas where salvage logging may be legitimate, these scientists suggest using helicopters or horses. But their main point is that most degradation to forests in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies has been caused by inappropriate logging, mining, grazing, and road building (rather than fire), and that in most cases ''the primary cure rests in curtailing human activities known to be damaging and counterproductive.''
While efforts to boost timber production from national forests are coming mainly from Republicans, Democrats are behind the effort as well.
Rep. Norm Dicks (D) of Washington co-sponsored the House Appropriations Committee action ordering the Forest Service to double its salvage logging program to 3 billion board-feet of timber over each of the next two years. In a letter to President Clinton, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) recently asked for an increase in the short-term timber supply.
The administration itself wants to exempt 5 million acres in the northwest from Endangered Species Act protection for the spotted owl to provide more timber for communities hard-hit by the long-running legal battle.
The Forest Service has been under attack by environmentalists and taxpayer advocates for earning less from timber sales than it spends on harvesting. While the agency has improved its record, 36 out of 101 national forests last year lost money on below-cost timber sales, according to the Forest Service's annual report. Critics say this amounts to a subsidy for the timber industry.
While much of the focus in Congress and the administration is on the economic side of managing national forests, environmental considerations continue to intrude.
The National Marine Fisheries Service last week proposed listing steelhead trout runs in southern Oregon and northern California as ''threatened'' under the Endangered Species Act. Later this month, the agency will decide whether several populations of Pacific coho salmon should be listed.
Ocean-migrating fish such as steelhead and salmon lose habitat when the rivers and streams in which they spawn are impacted by logging.