Measures Would Expand Logging on Federal Land
An Alaska senator has inserted a number of initiatives directly into the massive federal spending bill that would increase logging on federal land, not only in his home state but around the country.
The measures were introduced in recent days by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens at the request of the logging industry, which praised the effort as a last-ditch attempt to save their industry in southeastern Alaska and invigorate it elsewhere.
Environmentalists, however, complained that the move evaded the scrutiny of congressional debate and that the increased logging could damage some of the nation’s most cherished forests.
The spending bill remained hung up Tuesday over the Senate’s insistence on providing relief to drought-stricken farmers.
If the bill becomes unstuck, advocates on both sides say the logging provisions are likely to survive. Both the House and the Senate, nearly 4 1/2 months late in funding most domestic programs for the year that began Oct. 1, are eager to enact the nearly $400-billion spending bill.
The provisions were introduced during a conference committee trying to reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions of the spending bill. In the closed-door meeting Monday, Democrats failed to strip the forest clauses from the bill.
Even a group of eight moderate Republican House members, lead by Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, protested the move, complaining in a letter that it “would seriously undermine the legislative process to add new provisions behind closed doors and at the very last minute to a must-pass spending bill that is already four months old.”
But timber industry representatives said the legislation was needed.
“We’re at a level now that the industry is almost in collapse,” said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Assn., which represents sawmills and logging companies. “It would have a huge impact on us.”
One measure would create a program to allow the timber industry to harvest prime trees in exchange for their help in managing the forests. Others focus on the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, the largest national forest and the one with the most undeveloped land.
Both the Tongass and the Chugach National Forest, also in Alaska, would be exempted from a nationwide policy banning road building in undeveloped national forest areas. The Forest Service would have to let the industry cut enough timber sales in the Tongass to satisfy market demand. And the forest management plan would be sheltered from legal challenges.
Together these efforts are designed to provide a steady supply of old-growth trees from the Tongass without interruptions that have become common as a result of lawsuits filed by environmental groups.
Stevens defended the effort, saying the Clinton administration had no right to include Alaska in its policy banning road-building in 58.5 million acres of national forests, about a quarter of them in Alaska. A 1980 law forbade the executive branch from withdrawing land in Alaska without congressional approval, Stevens said.
“We’re talking about 1.7 million acres that is not subject to roadless [rule] and will not be subject to roadless as long as I’m alive,” Stevens said.
Representatives of timber companies in Alaska said they had asked Stevens to intercede on their behalf.
“The timber supply frequently has been interrupted over the last decade because of litigation, and our market has gone away because the buyer could not be assured of a continual supply,” said Errol Champion, owner of the Silver Bay Logging Sawmill in Wrangell, Alaska.
Many sawmills in southeastern Alaska have already shut down. Production has plummeted from a high of 700 million board-feet per year in the 1970s and ‘80s to about 50 million board-feet since the mid-90s, Graham said.
Graham said that if the provisions are not passed, “our industry is going to collapse completely.”
But environmentalists said that the provisions would block their efforts to protect the wild, old-growth forests.
“If these provisions pass we can expect an onslaught of timber sales from roadless areas of Tongass, which are clearly contrary to what the American people said they wanted,” said Tom Waldo, an attorney in Alaska for Earthjustice, a law firm specializing in environmental issues.
The Forest Service sees the program as a way to fund projects that used to be paid for with revenue from timber sales, which have plummeted in the last decade.
The companies would agree to thin trees and shrubs, build roads, maintain trails or restore wildlife habitats and watersheds. In exchange, they would be allowed to harvest timber.
Environmentalists said the stewardship contracts will increase logging of old-growth and other large trees.
“It lacks accountability and it may provide perverse economic incentives for timber companies to take out the bigger and more ecologically valuable trees rather than focusing on the ecological objectives of stewardship,” said Michael Anderson, an analyst for the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group.
David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Assn., said he thought it would be a cost-effective way to better manage the national forests and increase logging.
“I think it’s a good approach in this time of limited resources,” Bischel said.