Not since his Portland timber summit two years ago has President Clinton been hailed by Northwest conservationists and forest activists. Until Wednesday.
Private mumblings about Clinton’s broken promises of environmental protection turned into public exaltation over his renewed commitment to preserve national forests.
A threatened Clinton veto of a budget-cutting bill would stop, at least temporarily, an emergency timber provision sought by industry.
The measure calls for doubling the amount of burned and diseased federal trees available for harvest: 6.7 billion board feet through 1997, or enough to fill 1.3 million logging trucks. The bulk would come from the Pacific Northwest.
Pushed by U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the timber bill would suspend environmental laws and stop citizen challenges.
“This is an extreme law, one we never saw even under (Interior Secretary) James Watt, Ronald Reagan or George Bush,” said Dave Crandall of the Spokane-based Inland Empire Public Lands Council.
“It ends democracy in our forests.”
Northwest timber spokesmen were livid at news the president is using this bill as the basis to brandish his veto pen for the first time.
Most of the timber in question is rotting and serves no ecological purpose, industry officials said, except to promote future wildfires by adding to the woody fuel already on the forest floor.
In addition, the lack of federal timber is taxing private timberlands and opening up the U.S. lumber market to Canadian capitalists, one industry leader said.
“They are flooding the market,” said Cary Hegreberg, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association in Helena. “It’s been at the expense of American jobs.”
Canada’s share of the U.S. lumber market has jumped from 27 percent three years ago to 35 percent today, he said.
Other forestry officials accused Clinton of not only ignoring sick forests, but abandoning victims of the California floods and Oklahoma City bombing.
The budget-cutting bill included disaster relief.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Jim Geisinger, president of the Portland-based Northwest Forestry Association. “That’s the only thing I can say that you can print.”
Scores of environmental groups Wednesday rushed to praise Clinton and Vice President Gore for what the National Audubon Society called their “courageous stand” against an “unconscionable piece of legislation.”
Scientists on both sides of the timber debate continue to argue whether logging can reduce wildfire risks while not further harming unstable areas.
Appearing in Maryland on Wednesday, Clinton said he opposed the budget-cutting bill for many reasons.
Included was the timber provision, “which would basically direct us to make timber sales to large companies, subsidized by the taxpayers, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, that will essentially throw out all of our environmental laws …”
Current and former government budget analysts differ on the economic ramifications of the timber provision. The timber industry touts taxpayer windfalls as high as $1 billion from brisk sales of the salvage timber. But environmentalists, noting that the vast majority of salvage sales cost more to prepare than they generate, are forecasting hundreds of millions of dollars in deficit spending.
Gore said last week that the administration supports efforts to improve forest health and log responsibly.
It’s the same policy he and Clinton adopted in June 1993 after the Northwest timber summit.
“We will not tolerate a rollback of environmental and public health protection,” Gore said.