By Donella Meadows
–April 25, 1996–
If you live in a city, you may never have heard of the “salvage rider” If you live near a national forest, you may be watching in helpless fury as it turns protected stands of ancient trees into slash and erosion.
Where I live, in the widespread community of people who try to keep an eye on our nation’s resources, the salvage rider is keeping us awake at night. Reports of devastation arrive so fast that we find it impossible to put together the big picture of what is happening in our forests. All we know is that the trees are going down and that the rider makes it illegal for us to do anything about it.
High Country News carries a story of a lost forest almost every week. A publication of the environmental group “Save America’s Forests” is full of photos of hillsides covered with stumps. A friend calls, furious about an impending “salvage” cut of green and healthy forest in Kentucky. A Spokane newspaper describes mudslides from clearcut land burying roads and blocking what used to be trout streams.
A month ago protesters were dragged off from Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest, jailed because they walked into an area marked off limits by the U.S. Forest Service. They were opposing a 209-acre clearcut of previously protected thousand-year-old trees. Under the salvage rider a dozen clearcuts have been authorized in the Umpqua.
Two acres of burned timber in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest inspired the Forest Service to mark out 240 acres for a salvage sale.
Salvage sales cover 50 percent of the Conecuh National Forest in Alabama, though Hurricane Opal blew down only five percent of the trees, and a scientist testified that the storm damage, if left alone, would improve the health of the forest, while logging would do extensive damage.
The little rider that is causing all this mayhem is Section 2001 of the 1995 Rescissions Act. Logging lobbyists wrote it. The rabid Republican edge in Congress, without holding a hearing, attached it to various pieces of legislation until President Clinton finally signed it last July. What he signed was a budget act that included emergency relief for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Congressional schemers knew he could never veto that.
The rider stipulates that the Forest Service MUST sell off 4-6 billion board feet of lumber over the next two years. It is supposed to be salvage lumber, trees damaged by fire or infested with insects. We are supposed to be suffering from a forest health crisis. If we don’t get those dead and dying trees out of the woods, we will be consumed by forest fires.
Everyone knows this crisis is a hoax. Clinton’s office was inundated by letters from foresters pointing out that tree mortality in most of our national forests is no higher than usual and insect damage is at a 30-year low. Dead trees are not only normal in a forest but necessary to the recycling of nutrients and the support of many species. What really hurts a forest is logging roads and clearcuts, which damage soils, remove wildlife habitat, cause floods, reduce natural pest controls, and, by leaving dry slash behind, increase fire risk.
There was no point in making all those reasonable arguments. The salvage rider had nothing to do with reason or even with salvage. “Salvage” is an Open Sesame chant by which forest companies can tread where they would otherwise be forbidden. A memo leaked in 1992 from a Forest Service office in Oregon says, “We were told that virtually every sale should include ‘salvage’ in the name…. Even if a sale is totally green, as long as one board comes off that could qualify as salvage, it should be called Salvage. It’s a political thing.”
It’s a political thing that has, through the rider, exempted logging companies from every relevant environmental law. For a salvage cut they don’t have to file an environmental impact statement. They can forget the Endangered Species Act. They don’t have to abide by the requirement that national forests be cut on a sustainable-yield basis. They can ignore the 40-acre limit on clearcuts.
Best of all, from a company point of view, the rider forbids those pesky citizens who happen to own the forest from challenging salvage cuts in court. Blocked from every legal avenue of protest, citizens are once again standing in front of logging trucks and chaining themselves to trees — the kind of nasty confrontations that Clinton’s vaunted forest plan in the Pacific Northwest was intended to stop. That plan is now dead. Many new salvage cuts are aimed directly at old-growth forest that it was supposed to protect.
“The salvage bill is about one thing and one thing only, and that’s jobs,” says Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), one of its sponsors. His colleague Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has calculated that it will, on net, decrease jobs. It will cost taxpayer money, too. The government is losing hundreds of millions of dollars on salvage sales.
In Montana 200-acre clearcuts are appearing in the Kootenai and Helena National Forests. The Idaho Fish and Game Department objected to a sale that would hurt chinook salmon, but it’s going ahead anyway. Oregon state biologists oppose a sale that will build six miles of road into a roadless area, because of effects on the elk herd and the steelhead fishery. Salvage sales are clearly not about jobs, not about forest health, not about balancing the budget, and not about states’ rights, either. What they are about is a private grab of public resources, leaving behind lands and waters that will be damaged and unproductive for generations to come.
Reps. Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.) recently failed to pass a bill that would repeal the salvage rider. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), on the other hand, is promoting a bill that would make the it permanent. He calls it (I wonder how he can keep a straight face) the “Federal Lands Forest Health Protection and Restoration Act.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996