Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Death of Our National Forests

by Alexander Cockburn

Feinstein's motives appear to be twofold: She's running for the governorship in 1998 and thus is eager to show that she can look after the interests of the rural lobbies, plus she is also eager to show that she can handle the big environmental groups
It's heartbreaking to say it, but if you care about the national forests of the United States, it looks like the whole ball game is just about over.

Using the pretext of catastrophic fire and the slippery techniques of "consensus building," the forest destroyers are even now pushing through Congress a bill to double the amount of logging in national forests in the California Sierra. What's bad for the Sierra will be even worse for the forests of Idaho, Alaska and Oregon, where timber lobbies are far more potent. If you take 320 million board feet a year off the Sierra, you can probably triple that amount in prolific forests of Oregon, which is precisely what Rep. Bob Smith, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee that oversees the Forest Service, is proposing to do.

On July 26, President Bill Clinton will descend upon Lake Tahoe, and there he hopes to sign a law whose very name should send chills down the spines of all experienced friends of nature: the Quincy Library Group Forest Restoration Act. At Clinton's elbow will stand the midwife of this awful legislation: Sen. Dianne Feinstein. At stake here is some the last intact forest in John Muir's Range of Light in the California Sierra, beautiful stretches of Douglas fir, the last prime forest habitat in the state.

On July 9, the House passed a bill that will double the amount of logging on nearly 3 million acres of national forest land in the Sierra mountains near Lake Tahoe. Known as the Quincy Library Group bill, it is the ultimate symbol of how the consensus process works and how eager Congress is to follow its dictates. The bill was crafted by a group of conservationists, timber-industry reps and pillars of the Quincy community, a small town on the Feather River in the western foothills of the Sierras. After five years of mutual back scratching, the Quincy Library Group developed its own timber management plan for three nearby national forests: Lassen, Plumas and Tahoe.

Fear of fire was central to its strategy. The group knew full well that fire is the abiding dread of the gambling magnates and prosperous homeowners around Lake Tahoe. Playing on these fears, the Library Group said that the only way to combat a costly inferno is to push through an accelerated logging program.

The excuse comes in the following guise: a need to carve a network of fire breaks inside the three national forests. These firebreaks are grotesquely wide -- no less than 440 yards across. In fact, they are clear-cut avenues that will fragment some of the last contiguous habitat in California. In other words, they will create a major ecological disaster, particularly for wildlife that depends on unbroken expanses of forest.

The Congressional Budget Office reckons that this firebreak logging program will cost the taxpayer about $83 million a year. That's the subsidy it will take to plan 300 million board feet of timber sales a year. The Forest Service is ordered to raid other accounts, such as wildlife management and recreation, to foot the bill. The profits from the timber sales will go to companies such as Sierra Pacific and Collins Pine -- not the taxpayer.

The Quincy Library Group bill had been kicking around Capitol Hill for about a year, had been attacked by nearly every environmental group and seemed doomed. But then, suddenly, it found its way to the floor of the House where, on July 9, it passed by the astounding margin of 429-1, the lone dissenter being Ron Paul, the Texan libertarian who denounced the bill as nothing more than a looting of public assets and the below-cost selling of timber from federal lands. Which it is.

Days before the vote in the House, the leadership of the big national green groups had been solicited by Sen. Feinstein of California. She told them that the Quincy bill was going to move speedily through the House and then she was going to maneuver it just as expeditiously through the Senate. Feinstein said she needed a commitment from the big green organizations not to sabotage this plan.

If any one group in the country should oppose logging in the California Sierra, it is surely Muir's offspring, the Sierra Club. But Carl Pope, executive director of the club, parleyed with Feinstein and, it seems, threw in the towel. How else to explain that the club's lobbyists could not muster any votes against the bill in the House? (Paul, the only true maverick in the Congress, certainly didn't take his lead from the club.)

Feinstein's motives appear to be twofold. She's running for the governorship of her state in 1998 and thus is eager to show that she can look after the interests of the rural lobbies. She is also eager to show that she can handle the big environmental groups.

The tempo will now pick up. Feinstein wants to fast-track her Senate bill, so that legislation will be ready for President Clinton to sign when he presides over the Lake Tahoe environmental summit on July 26.

Make no mistake about it, if the Quincy Library bill goes through the Senate, it will set a terrible model as legislation that claims to protect the forest while mandating a doubling of logging. As a seasoned congressional staffer said: "This is the kind of bill Congress would love to vote on every day. It's like the federal highway program, only in this case the pork barrel is clear cuts instead of freeways."

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 29, 1997 (

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