Under mounting pressure from forest advocates, the Clinton administration retreated at the last minute Friday from a campaign to sell logging rights for as many trees as possible before the sales program expires at the end of the year.
The retreat will save only a small percentage of the trees being cut under the program, however, and environmentalists said the action came far too late.
Nonetheless, the administration, sensitive to criticism of what was coming to be known as a “Christmas rush” on the United States’ forests, halted the final sales of timber in some of the most environmentally sensitive forests of the Pacific Northwest.
The program had gotten so frenetic that the U.S. Forest Service had advertised auctions of logging rights on Christmas and New Year’s eves, as well as on most of the other more conventional business days of the month. Those sales will be allowed to go forward, but any that have not been announced already will be canceled.
The legislation under which the trees were made available to loggers was among the most controversial environmental laws passed by the Congress and signed by President Clinton in the last two years. It allowed logging companies to cut trees in some of the United States’ oldest forests without submitting their plans to review on environmental grounds, or to face court challenges to the sales.
“Our national forests have been spared from this end-of-year assault by the timber industry,” Bill Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, said in praising Lyons’ action.
“By stopping this Christmas rush, the administration has put to an end one of the worst environmental policies ever passed by Congress. It means that once again, the timber industry, like every other American, will have to obey the laws that protect our forests,” he said.
Effective Jan. 1, citizen appeals of timber sales will be allowed to resume and the usual environmental impact statements and other reviews will be required as they were before the rider was implemented.
The administration’s decision Friday is likely to have the greatest impact in Oregon and Washington, where some of the most inaccessible - and environmentally sensitive - stands of trees were likely to be sold.
The program was put into effect in July 1995. It was sought by senators and House members, mostly from the Northwest, and by the timber industry. They presented it as allowing speedy access to diseased and fire-damaged trees that might rot if delayed by environmental reviews.
But opponents have complained, often in noisy protests that have led to arrests in forests throughout the Northwest, that the legislation led loggers also to cut healthy trees in thriving forests, building roads into inaccessible lands and clearing hillsides without concern for the landslides and floods that could follow.
While praising the administration for halting the program, Nathaniel Lawrence, a senior attorney specializing in forest issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said “it’s unfortunate that this effort comes so late in the game that relatively few sales will be affected by it.”
The timber industry reacted angrily.
“The administration has appeased a handful of extremists at the expense of responsible management of public forests,” said W. Henson Moore, president and chief executive officer of the American Forest & Paper Association.
Environmentalists had accused the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service of abusing the program - cutting live trees and rushing to complete last-minute salvage logging in sensitive areas before the temporary suspension of environmental safeguards expires Dec. 31.
Several conservation groups had organized a mass telephone campaign for Monday to try to persuade Clinton to cancel all remaining salvage sales. Participants were urged to call the White House and say: “Avoid the Christmas rush - these sales are not emergencies.”
xxxx WHAT’S LEFT? Out of roughly 4.5 billion board feet that the administration said would be cut under the program, the shift will save no more than about 50 million board feet, an administration official said. A board foot is 1 inch thick and 12 inches square.