A half-mile up logging road 080 in the Siskiyou National Forest, an encampment of eco-warriors prepares to face bulldozers and chain saws. They've dug a ditch across the road, built a rock and log barricade, and dragged out an old Pontiac - all more symbolic than actual impediments to tree cutters.
About a dozen activists with the Siskiyou Forest Defenders have been arrested so far, protesting "salvage logging" in the national forests. These protests, played out amid the conifers are being repeated around the West and the rest of the country as opposition to increased logging on federal forests spreads.
This week, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., turn their attention to the issue, deciding whether to extend a salvage logging law, designed to remove damaged timber. It's a controversial subject that has roused debate among economists, natural scientists, religious leaders - and politicians trying to balance jobs and the environment.
Proponents say salvage logging is a way to support resource-dependent communities while restoring forest health. Salvage logging has a role to play, they say, particularly since the practice of suppressing wild fires has become popular in recent decades, which has removed one natural tool to rid the forest of aging and weak trees.
Critics say the rush to log does more harm than good to the environment, that many healthy, green trees are being cut in addition to weak ones, and that salvage logging is just an excuse to continue subsidizing the timber industry.
At least 600 people have been arrested in Oregon and Washington alone since the first of the year. They have violated official bans on entering certain parts of national forests. They have conducted sit-down strikes and perched in trees or tall tripods. Some have used bicycle locks to shackle themselves by the neck to log trucks.
And although some groups of forest activists look like camp followers from a Grateful Dead tour, many of those arrested fit society's definition of "respectable."
Dressed in suits and ties, former congressman Jim Jontz and Audubon Society vice president Brock Evans were hauled before a magistrate (along with 200 others) for refusing to disperse at the Sugarloaf timber sale in Oregon. Businessman Gary Schrodt, who owns a small woods-products factory and mail-order business in Ashland, Ore., joined protesters. So did Dot Fisher-Smith, an elderly woman who locked herself to a log truck at the Croman Corporation headquarters in Ashland.
"I was moved by a desire to dispel the growing myth that only young, wild 'hippie' types do radical actions for what they believe," Mrs. Fisher-Smith wrote in a local environmental journal. "I wanted to demonstrate that old people can put themselves at risk in the same way and can be equally passionate and concerned." In considering the misdemeanor charge against her, municipal Judge Alan Drescher sentenced Fisher-Smith to create a dialogue between environmentalists and timber-company officials.
Logging law politics
Last year, President Clinton signed a law allowing salvage logging in federal forests for one year. The law was attached without congressional debate to a 1995 spending bill providing relief for Bosnian refugees and victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton later said signing the bill was a mistake.
A new bill, sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, would continue the salvage logging on federal lands and expedite the process. The measure is needed, Senator Craig says, because of "the serious deterioration of the forest lands from a variety of ills including, drought, insect and disease attacks, and unnatural wildfire.
"To simply put our heads in the sand and claim there isn't a forest health problem would be to deny good stewardship," he says. "What I am offering is a tool for professionals ... to use to help manage forests better."
The timber industry (which has been a big campaign contributor to Craig), is eager to see the bill passed. "Senator Craig's legislation provides a careful and pragmatic solution that will meet the needs of Western forests and rural economies," says Intermountain Forest Industry Association executive vice president Jim Riley.
How to keep a forest healthy
But some experts argue that Craig's bill could harm forest health. In a letter to Clinton urging that he veto the bill, a group of 111 natural scientists last month warned that "the environmental costs of salvage logging and associated road building often outweigh the benefits.
"Because salvage logging removes natural fire breaks, it homogenizes the landscapes and increases susceptibility to catastrophic fires and insect outbreaks," the scientists wrote.
As the controversy continues, the attitude by some on both sides appears to be hardening. Workers at a mill near Salem, Ore., last month discovered steel-and-ceramic spikes in logs. Some equipment was damaged, but no one was hurt. (No one claimed responsibility, but activists have spiked trees in the past.)
More recently, a federal grand jury in Eugene, Ore., charged three men with illegally logging some 6,000 acres in northern California. The men are alleged to have offered to remove diseased trees, but then cut down healthy timber.
Meanwhile, at the China Left timber site here, protesters continue to wait until the rains, and therefore the logging, resume.
Recently, the protesters, camped out and relying on others to bring in supplies, were visited by "Baywatch" actress Alexandra Paul. The TV star is not new to protests; she has been arrested at nuclear sites before. "It's an abomination that this land should be logged," she said after flying over in a light plane.
Among those who came to lend moral support was Mike Rummel, a grandfather and wallpaper hanger. "Ten or 15 years from now I can at least say I did my part," he says.
Others emphasize national forests are the property of all Americans. "They belong to children in Philadelphia, to retired people in New York, to farmers in the Midwest," says Jean Crawford, director of the Siskiyou Regional Education Project, an environmental group. "The public lands are all the land that some of us will ever own."