Congress and President Clinton have an opportunity in the next few weeks to correct an error they made a little over a year ago by enacting Public Law 104-19, the Rescissions Act Logging Rider.
That grafted-on bit of legislation, passed as part of a bill that also included aid for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, quickly sprouted into controversy. Known generally as the timber-salvage rider, the measure's ostensible purpose was to allow loggers to clean up dead or damaged trees that posed fire hazards in national forests. Its backers talked of a "forest-health emergency."
But spliced into the law were provisions that allowed harvesting of healthy green trees as well - if they were deemed subject to disease or insect damage.
Moreover, the rider specified that key environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act would be waived in the case of these "salvage" operations.
In practice, this legislation has opened many tracts of old-growth forest, particularly in California and the Northwest, to renewed clear-cut logging. Dozens of tracts have already been sold and leveled. Hundreds of other sales are pending and could be pushed through before the rider expires at the end of this year.
That momentum can be halted by a vote in Congress to repeal the rider. A measure to accomplish that will likely be attached to the Interior appropriations bill or another spending bill. A repeal nearly passed the House last June and should pass now - both on its merits and because the White House and members of Congress are sharply aware of the public outcry the rider has caused.
The point in scrapping this law is not to stop logging, per se. True salvage logging and logging on well-managed woodlands, public and private, is needed. But that legitimate activity can, and will, continue without a shadowy law that pushes aside environmental safeguards and damages forests in the name of protecting them.