Idaho Sen. Larry Craig is drafting a forest health bill that would stop citizens from fighting federal timber sales deemed emergencies because of fire or disease.
The move would force environmentalists to file costly court challenges as the only way to prevent what they consider destructive logging operations.
It also would allow the U.S. Forest Service to open up vast tracts of timber to chain saws without comprehensive environmental reviews.
“Sen. Craig’s forest health bill is a declaration of war on the national forest,” charged Barry Rosenberg of Spokane-based Forest Watch.
“It eviscerates the citizen appeals process and is an outright attack on our democracy and public lands,” he said.
Craig, a Republican senator and a former representative, was unavailable for comment Thursday. His spokesman, David Fish, refused to discuss the bill until it is introduced, possibly Monday.
Internal documents from Craig’s office indicate the bill would give the Forest Service sweeping latitude on salvage timber sales.
Salvage sales involve trees that are dead or dying because of wildfire, disease or insect damage. The trees must be logged quickly or they lose market value.
Current regulations subject salvage sales to public review.
Craig’s bill would apply to lands owned by the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, except those designated as protected wilderness.
According to the documents, Craig is considering the following provisions:
A national review of federal lands for forest health problems. Those in the worst shape would be designated as “health emergencies” or “high-risk.”
“Interested parties” including timber companies could petition the government to designate areas under either category.
Thorough scientific studies called environmental impact statements would be dropped in favor of more cursory environmental assessments.
Certain kinds of logging, such as thinning, would be exempt from environmental documentation and appeals outright.
Logging in areas declared “health emergencies” couldn’t be appealed, and activities in “highrisk” areas could be challenged only within 30 days after a sale decision is announced.
The time frame for filing lawsuits would be shortened, although the documents don’t say what that period is.
“I believe this bill will go a long way toward facilitating and permitting agency field staff to move aggressively on forest health while being properly attentive to the environment,” writes Craig’s forestry staffer, Norm Arseneault, who is writing the bill.
Craig spokesman Fish would not allow Arseneault to be interviewed, although Arseneault has been accessible to the timber industry and lobbyists on this issue.
It is not known whether Craig’s staff included environmentalists in the process.
“We’re still working on it (bill). It’s not finished,” Fish said. “Until I have the ammo, I’m not going to fire on this one. It’s a big bill.”
Fish said the bill is a result of two 1994 Senate forest health public hearings in Boise and South Dakota. He said there is bi-partisan support for it, but he would not disclose any potential co-sponsors.
The chances of the bill passing won’t be known until it’s introduced and senators begin debating it.
Craig’s legislation is a “good thing” that would give the Forest Service legal permission to expedite salvage sales while the wood still is profitable, said the Coeur d’Alene-based Intermountain Forestry Industry Association.
By making forest health a priority within its first month, the new Republican-dominated Congress heeded a desperate cry for help from the timber industry, said association spokesman Ken Kohli said.
He noted environmentalists “have not been shy” about going to court in the past to stop marginal timber sales.
For the past four years, activists primarily have used the appeals process, which doesn’t cost a dime. Forest Watch’s many wins on Forest Service appeals have kept “our forests from being destroyed,” Rosenberg said.
He and other conservation leaders contend the forests are not as sick as the government and timber industry contend.
Root rot, disease infestations and wildfires are just part of nature’s normal cycle, environmentalists said Thursday.
“This throws open the door to timber corporations and slams the door on local people who watchdog the federal government,” said John Osborn of the Spokane-based Inland Empire Public Lands Council.