CONGRESS has proved again the danger of a little knowledge. Timber legislation now before both houses abuses science so badly that it ends up violating ecological principles and trampling on the Contract With America.
This story begins with the valid observation that some federal forest lands have been damaged by fire or insect infestation. Unfortunately, that marks the end of scientific objectivity in the current debate over forest management.
The House, leaping from the fact of some damaged forests to the politically expedient myth of a ''forest health emergency,'' recently passed a national production requirement for logging 6 billion board feet of volume from salvage sales on federal lands for the next two years. This is more than twice the amount of salvageable timber the Forest Service estimates is currently available from our nation's forests.
Similarly, the Federal Lands Forest Health Protection and Restoration Act, due for a vote in the Senate in April, sets standards for conducting salvage operations which amount to bypassing landmark environmental statutes such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Forest Management Act to log forests where half the trees are sick or dying from insect or fire damage.
These standards may be appropriate for fireproofing forests in the urban-wildlands interface, where a century of fire-suppression activities led to the accumulation of dangerously high fuels that contributed to last year's fires in the West. But if applied indiscriminately across forested landscapes they will further reduce the resiliency of ecosystems already near collapse.
Such forests, some members of Congress claim, should be cut for the good of the forest and the good of people who depend on forests to make a living. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation prescribes a treatment -- more logging -- that is worse than the disease and is neither ecologically or economically sustainable.
Both the House and Senate proposals make the simplistic and incorrect assumption that the health of a forest can be measured by the marketability of its trees.
The situation is, in fact, a great deal more complicated. Forests are dynamic, interactive ecosystems. Any complete understanding of a forest must take into account the role that complex processes, such as fire and insects, play in maintaining forests, recycling nutrients to the soil, and maintaining fish and wildlife populations.
Dead trees are not a troubling symbol of decay, but an integral part of a healthy forest. Dead trees provide habitat for many species of birds, bats, spiders, and ants that prey on great numbers of destructive insects. Virgin forests older than 150 years with lots of dead and dying trees contain healthy populations of insect predators and intact ecological processes. They are more capable of rebounding from disease outbreaks than intensively managed forests, which often lack these important natural checks.
Any effort to promote forest health must look for guidance to the few remaining bits of ancient forest scattered about the Pacific Northwest, primarily in roadless areas. Those forests have thrived for millennia despite fires, disease, and insect infestations, and require little if any human intervention. In many cases, the best way to ensure forest ''health'' is to leave the forest alone.
THE proposed salvage logging is a huge federal giveaway of publicly owned timber. When the cost of building the roads needed to get at the timber is included, these sales are a financial burden to the federal treasury. Rep. Sidney Yates (D) of Illinois estimates that the subsidies required to implement these programs will cost taxpayers $375 million. If the Republican Congress is serious about fiscal responsibility, and a balanced budget, harmful subsidies like this should be among the first to go.
The legislation before Congress reflects faith in an economic myth that the value of a forest is measured only in board feet. Yet the value of forests, even in economic terms, is also in watershed maintenance, fisheries restoration, and recreation. The legislation is based on poor economics and worse science.