Even before it started, a conference that backers hoped would ease tensions in the fight over U.S. forest policy became mired in controversy Tuesday with environmentalists threatening to walk out.
As the five-day, Seventh American Forest Congress began, attention focused on the dispute over congressional action opening thousands of acres of old-growth forests in Washington state and Oregon to logging.
The congress was billed as an effort to set aside day-to-day hostilities and shape a long-term vision for managing the nation’s 700 million acres of forest. It’s being attended by more than 1,400 timber company officials, academics, professional foresters, timber workers, community activists and environmentalists.
Previously, the grassroots, citizens congresses have played a major role in setting the forest agenda. The first, in 1882, laid the groundwork for the national forest system; the second, hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, led to the creation of the U.S. Forest Service.
The most recent, in 1975, prompted a series of environmental laws that congressional Republicans now want to gut.
“The time has come for the nation to turn away from polarization and toward consensus,” Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas said in a statement welcoming the delegates.
Despite the high hopes, environmentalists said they were prepared to withdraw if the conference didn’t take a strong stand against the socalled salvage rider. Adopted as an amendment to an appropriations bill last summer, it was billed as a way to provide relief to a financially hardpressed timber industry by logging dead and dying trees.
But the rider also opened the door to the logging of living, old-growth trees in environmentally sensitive areas for spotted owls, marbled murlets and threatened and endangered salmon.
“We have laid down markers,” said Rindy O’Brien, vice president of public policy for The Wilderness Society, adding environmentalists want the forest congress to take a strong stand opposing “logging without laws” and suspending judicial review.
Timber industry representatives said they weren’t surprised by the environmentalists’ stand.