Scientists and academics criticized Tuesday a proposal to exempt salvage logging of national forests from U.S. environmental laws, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he would oppose the measure.
Professors and researchers at 16 universities joined leaders of scientific organizations in a letter to President Clinton condemning the proposal to waive laws protecting fish and wildlife.
More than 50 biologists, ecologists, geologists and fisheries and wildlife scientists nationwide urged strong restrictions on salvage logging, which several lawmakers have proposed as a way to ease fire threats in publicly owned forests in the West.
“Fires and recovery from fires are part of the natural pattern in which Western species evolved and to which many Western species and ecosystems are adapted,” the scientists wrote. “Human disruption of the natural processes associated with recovery from fire - not the fires themselves - causes long-term damage to many of the resources in the region,” including soils, fisheries, watersheds and wildlife.
The Senate is expected to vote as early as today on a comprehensive spending bill that includes a proposal by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., ordering the U.S. Forest Service to log dead, dying and overstocked trees free from the constraints of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. The House has approved a similar measure.
President Clinton has indicated he opposes waiving existing laws to complete the salvage harvests, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., plans to challenge the proposal on the Senate floor, her spokesman Rex Carney said Tuesday.
Baucus announced Tuesday he too would resist Gorton’s proposal.
“The Gorton amendment allows timber harvesting to take place in many of Montana’s most special places,” Baucus said in a statement. He listed the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, the Gallatin Range, the Porcupine Creek drainage near Big Sky and South Cottonwood near Bozeman.”Several other senstive areas could all be opened up to timber harvesting,” Baucus said.Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., also voiced opposition to the idea during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting Friday and is considering an amendment to strike Gorton’s language from the bill, his spokesman said.”There are a number of things he may decide to do on the floor. He is going to hold all of his options open,” press secretary John Lyford said Tuesday.
But Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., supports the measure. “We think those places are potentially in danger right now because of fire danger,” said Burns spokesman Dick Wadhams. The amendment would reduce wildfire threats by removing dead and dying trees while also making more logs available to Montana sawmills, Wadhams said.
Gorton said he is “cautiously optimistic” his proposal will prevail in the Senate. He said the scientists signing the letter to Clinton are ignoring the fire threats in the West.
“They are in favor of natural forest fires. That just simply is not a position that is consistent with the way in which people live in these areas,” Gorton said Tuesday. “It is appropriate for us to change nature. It is appropriate for us to fight forest fires.”
Congress has heard conflicting testimony about the extent of wildfire threats in the West and about the benefits and dangers of salvage logging.
Doug Crandall of the American Forest & Paper Association said salvage logging is needed to reduce fire threats resulting from 100 years of fire suppression policies that have allowed wood fuels to build up beyond natural levels.
However, Norman Christensen Jr., dean of Duke University’s School of the Environment, said in a letter to U.S. senators that salvage logging can be an important management tool but requires careful analysis and monitoring.
If salvage logging is “done poorly, the productivity and biological integrity of public forests may be permanently compromised,” Christensen said. “I urge you to reject exemptions for this kind of logging from the laws and regulations that guide stewardship of public lands.”