FROM New England to the Northwest there are growing political and legal clashes over the nation's forests.
Citizens have gathered 50,000 signatures in hopes of forcing a ban on clear-cutting in Maine. The Alabama Wilderness Alliance is suing to stop a 15,000-acre timber sale on the Conecuh National Forest. And activists in Oregon are using bicycle locks to shackle themselves by the neck to log trucks in protest of increased tree harvesting on federal land.
Meanwhile, budget misers such as the National Taxpayers Union are grumbling about the cost to taxpayers of a federal timber program that loses money on most national forests. And more than 100 members of Congress - Republicans as well as Democrats - have signed on to legislation that would repeal the ''salvage logging'' bill pushed through last year by Western lawmakers eager to support jobs in mills.
''We have come a long way in making Washington aware of the crisis in our forests,'' says Jim Jontz, executive director of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. ''Now is the time to turn up the heat.''
Confrontations over spotted owls and salmon have prompted a skirmishes in the ''war in the woods'' in the past. But what's new now is the heightened nationwide concern, plus the impact of this issue on politics - including the presidential election.
Exit polls showed the environment to be an important factor in this month's election of Democrat Ron Wyden to replace Republican Bob Packwood as Oregon's junior US Senator. And a recent GOP survey warned that ''by greater than a 2-1 margin, voters have more confidence in the Democrats than Republicans as the party they trust most to protect the environment.''
In response to public perceptions about their party, a group called ''New Hampshire Republicans for Responsible Conservation'' is urging GOP presidential hopefuls - who face a key delegate contest in the Granite State next week - to speak out on behalf of clean water, endangered species, and other environmental issues.
The focus of the effort to preserve national forest lands is a repeal of the law allowing salvage logging. Attached as a rider to a spending rescissions bill quickly passed last spring without congressional hearings, the measure was promoted as a ''forest health'' measure to cut dead and dying trees on federal lands nationwide.
But critics say centuries-old healthy, green trees as well as those weakened by disease or fire have been cut down and are included in the more than 300 federal timber sales totaling about 4 billion board-feet. And they are particularly troubled with provisions that exempt such timber sales from complying with the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other national environmental laws that they normally operate under - controversial provisions that so far have been upheld in federal court.
Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D) of Oregon, together with Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland, is pushing a bill that would end what critics call ''logging without laws.'' At last count, more than 100 lawmakers (including about a dozen Republicans) had joined as co-sponsors.
''I don't oppose logging,'' says Representative Furse. ''All I ask is that we obey the law.'' Sens. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey and Barbara Boxer (D) of California are expected to introduce a companion measure in the Senate at the end of the month.
More broadly, Rep. John Bryant (D) of Texas and Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut introduced legislation that would ban clear-cutting, or what is euphemistically called ''even-age'' harvesting, on all federal lands to protect biological diversity.
''The Forest Service and other agencies are using even-age in spite of substantial evidence that selection management - cutting individual trees, leaving the canopy and undergrowth relatively undisturbed - is more cost-effective and has a higher benefit-cost ratio,'' says Mr. Bryant.
The cost to the federal government of logging on national forests - especially when timber prices are depressed - is also a major factor in the current debate. The federal government between 1992 and 1994 reportedly spent about $1 billion more on preparing and administering timber sales than it gathered in receipts.
Although he signed the rescissions bill with the ''salvage logging'' rider, President Clinton has acknowledged it needs changing. Environmentalists are pressuring him, in a reelection year, to call for full repeal.