The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a dramatic escalation in timber cutting on federal land that would be immune to legal challenges under a range of environmental laws.
The forest initiative came on a voice vote as the panel worked its way through legislation that cuts $17.1 billion in federal spending approved by previous Democratic Congresses, and appropriates $5.4 billion for disaster relief, Jordanian debt relief and other needs.
The timber salvage plan approved by the committee meets concerns among congressional allies of the timber industry that thousands of acres of federal timber damaged by insects and fires would go to waste. Under the amendment offered by Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would have to prepare for sale 6.2 billion board feet of timber over two years. That would approximately double the current yearly yield from the entire national forest system.
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said the directive was needed because of a crisis in the health of forests throughout the West and because timber mills are suffering from a lack of supply because of environmental restrictions. Without the emergency program, he said, billions of board feet of damaged but usable timber would rot and go to waste.
But environmentalists and congressional opponents said the emergency salvage program would be a giveaway to the timber industry and allow overcutting in environmentally sensitive areas. "I consider this to be . . . a grab for government property, timber," Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) said.
The amendment requires the Administration to consider the environmental impacts of the sale program, but says in advance the sales satisfy the requirements of numerous environmental laws. In the past such language has been used to insulate federal timber sales from legal challenges.
Kevin P. Kirchner, an attorney with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, said the salvage program, if enacted by Congress, would be "the most far reaching assault on national forests in the 13 years I've been here." The Administration said it too opposes the massive sales program, and could not meet the program's targets. The Administration is overseeing a salvage program this year of about 1.6 billion board feet.
"The Clinton Administration is well aware of the need to move aggressively with forest health problems," said James Lyons, an assistant secretary of agriculture with jurisdiction over the U.S. Forest Service. "But voiding all environmental laws is not the way to get there."
The Appropriations Committee marched ahead Thursday with cuts as Republican members easily defeated a series of attempts to soften the impact on the poor, elderly and veterans.
The spending cuts, which are being taken mainly from funds that were appropriated in previous budgets but not yet spent, are far deeper than even Republicans had predicted a few weeks ago. While GOP lawmakers contend that they represent a down payment on deficit reduction and offset spending on unforeseen needs, such as floods, Democrats have charged the savings are a "honey pot" to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
Late in the session, the committee passed by 33 to 21 an abortion-related amendment introduced by Rep. Ernest Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), which, if enacted, will set aside the Clinton Administration's interpretation of a 1993 Medicaid statute. The Administration has contended that the law requires states to provide Medicaid-funded abortions in cases of rape and incest. But the Istook amendment would leave the decision up to the states, unless the life of the woman was threatened. Three Democrats crossed over to vote with Republicans on the issue, but two Republicans were opposed.