Mitch Friedman thought he’d finally beaten the Forest Service at its own game when he showed up at a U.S. timber auction with cash in hand to buy centuries-old trees offered up to the highest bidder.
The longtime environmentalist, who heads the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham, Wash., had spent the better part of two decades on the front lines of protests against logging of national forests.
He’d helped organize lawsuits and administrative appeals to try to block clearcuts, citing violations of laws protecting fish and wildlife.
But this was the first time he’d decided it might be cheaper in the long run to just spend $15,000 to buy the trees and set them aside in his own public reserve.
He never dreamed Forest Service rules won’t allow it.
“A checkbook won’t get you in. You need a chain saw,” said Friedman, a former activist with Earth First! who traversed Capitol Hill last week to rally support for changes in national forest logging rules.
Current rules prohibit the sale of publicly owned timber to groups or individuals who don’t intend to cut the trees.
“Right now, our public forests are being managed like an exclusive club,” said Friedman, who filed a petition with the Agriculture Department to repeal the prohibition.
“The big question here is whether the Forest Service wants to open up the process or keep the excuse that the regulations force them to log regardless of whether it loses money, harms the environment or other considerations,” he said in an interview.
The Forest Service cited the rule last year in rejecting Friedman’s top bid - $15,000 - for the Thunder Mountain timber sale on the Okanogan National Forest in Washington state.
The second-highest bidder, AA Logging of Twisp, Wash., was selected as the winner on the condition it matched the environmentalists’ bid. It did and logged the site south of the Pasayten Wilderness Area last summer, an estimated 3.5 million board feet of timber consisting of spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine.
The harvest was to be limited to trees killed in the 1994 Thunder Mountain fire or those very likely to die from insects that attack fire-damaged trees, according to the environmental review conducted by the Forest Service.
But the alliance contended that cutting down the trees would jeopardize wildlife habitat and stream conditions for salmon nonetheless.
The Southwest Center for Biodiversity lost a similar bid in Arizona last year and joined the petition, along with the Oregon Natural Resources Council. The petition says the government should be required to accept the bid “which is most advantageous to the nation.”
“We can’t see any reason why the Forest Service shouldn’t go for this,” said Mark Hubbard of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, based in Eugene, Ore. “If a person or public interest group would give them easy money and not take the trees, seems like a no-brainer.”
Jim Lyons, the Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said the proposed rule change is “an interesting idea we should explore.
“As I understand their proposal, they simply are proposing that we look at the overall benefit to the resource,” Lyons said in an interview. “It is an idea worth considering, especially if the resource and the taxpayer are better off in the long run.”
Doug Crandall, a timber specialist for the American Forest and Paper Association, said the industry as a whole doesn’t have a position on the rule.
But Chris West, vice president of the Northwest Forestry Association in Portland, said his group would fight the rule change. He said timber sales are offered for specific reasons, sometimes to improve forest health conditions.
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