Facing a year-end deadline, the US Forest Service is rushing to push through what environmentalists have labeled a "Christmas rush" of timber sales on federal lands.
Despite claims by White House officials that they have moved to block any surge in cutting, more than 50 sales were put on the auction block this month.
The last-minute sales are an attempt to take advantage of an exception in the law governing "salvage logging" - the harvesting of dead and dying trees. The special rule, which runs out at the end of the year, allows companies to harvest salvage timber if it aids the protection of "forest health."
Timber companies say they are doing just that, but environmentalists say they are abusing the exemption to cut live trees as well.
A coalition of more than 100 environmental and other citizens' organizations have called on President Clinton to halt the timber sales, many of which will take place in old-growth forests in the West. They dismiss claims by administration officials that they lack the authority to put the brakes on these contracts.
"Clearly the administration would like everyone to believe all the problems are over - and they're not," says Jim Jontz, a former congressman from Indiana and executive director of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. The organization has publicized a list of some 52 auctions in December, most of them in national forests in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana.
From its first to its last days, the salvage-logging bill has lived up to its reputation as one of the nation's most controversial environmental issues. Since its passage in the spring of 1995, the law has prompted protests on logging roads and vast lobbying efforts by conservationists for whom it became the symbol of the Republican-led Congress's attempts to roll back decades of environmental protection.
Salvage logging has also been a source of tension between environmental groups and the Clinton administration after the president signed the spending bill carrying the salvage-logging law. For many activists, that decision epitomizes the gap between its pro-environment rhetoric and its actions.
"With regard to forests, the administration has talked one line and done something else," says Mr. Jontz.
With the rider set to expire on Dec. 31, the administration is eager to repair the political damage. Fearful of a rush of sales in the rider's final days, James Lyons, the undersecretary of Agriculture, instructed the Forest Service on Dec. 13 to cease all further advertising of salvage sales.
"We didn't want to put more [sales] in the hopper," Mr. Lyons says from Washington in an interview. "Like everybody, we're anxious to get this behind us."
THE move was also prompted by an interagency study of salvage-logging activities released on Dec. 6. The review found that there was not sufficient oversight of the sales by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies. The law broadened the definition of salvage to include removal of trees considered to be under "imminent threat" of fire or insect attack. In practice, the report said, this meant everything from dead trees to live trees.
"In some instances, green trees were harvested that should not have been," says Mr. Lyons. The report also notes that the Forest Service has an incentive to carry out the salvage sales to generate revenue for its operations.
The order to halt advertising sales was intended to "recover some credibility with the public," Lyons says. The order also provides for a transition to the closing of the law.
But Lyons was unable to supply any figures on how many potential sales were blocked by this move. Conservation organizations have found evidence of only two sales in Oregon and Washington affected by the order - and both of them are going ahead because of exemptions. In California, where some 150 million board feet of timber was scheduled for sale in December, only seven small sales, or a total of 2.8 million board feet, were affected by the suspension.
"They tried to make a big environmental play out of an announcement of what is merely an administrative matter," says an aide to Idaho Sen. Larry Craig (R), a supporter of the logging industry. "It didn't amount to anything."
Even the end of the salvage-logging law is not going to end battles over the management of national forests. Senator Craig introduced a 100-page bill earlier this month aimed at reforming the entire federal forest system.
But conservationists see the bill as an effort to extend the rollback of environmental protection that was temporarily enforced by the salvage-logging rider. According to an analysis of the legislation prepared by the Wilderness Society, Craig's reforms would weaken compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, legislation that requires a complex evaluation of the impact of any activity, including logging.
Conservationists dismiss the bill as a "timber industry wish list" and predict it will face opposition in Congress. For his part, Lyons expresses concerns about provisions to reduce the public's right to challenge timber sales. But he says officials will "wait and see until we have chance to digest the bill."