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Ecologists Battle Timber Industry at Auction Block


OKANOGAN, Wash. — When the U.S. Forest Service auctioned off 271 acres of lodgepole pines left standing after a wildfire swept through the Okanogan National Forest, environmentalists seeking to halt logging in one of the Northwest's last great sweeps of wilderness had a limited list of options.

They could file an appeal with the Forest Service, the kind of appeal that usually gets stamped, filed and denied. They could file a lawsuit and almost certainly get turned back by the courts. They could wait for the logging machinery to move in and organize protests.

Or they could do a little arithmetic. Because the trees would have to be plucked out by helicopter, and because many of them were warped from the heat of the 1995 blaze, "there was relatively little interest from the timber industry," recalled Mitch Friedman of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "When the timber industry wasn't willing to pay very much money, it became apparent to me that we were willing to pay more."

The alliance sent out 5,000 mailers, offering respondents the chance to adopt an acre of federal forest land for $100. Within weeks, $12,000 in pledges came back, with the promise of much more. One day last spring, an alliance representative stood in a room full of loggers and outbid them for the trees, winning the day with an offer of $28,750.

The issue has upended traditional thinking on federal forest management, leaving top forest officials uncertain how to respond to a logging bidder who has no intention of logging any trees. Even some mainstream environmental groups have regarded the bidding idea with suspicion, warning that it opens the door to placing protection of natural resources on the auction block.

The alliance's bid ultimately was rejected, and the contract awarded to the second-highest bidder--an Oroville, Wash., logging company. The Clinton administration signaled its own conflict over the issue last week, when the Department of Agriculture issued a letter rejecting the idea of awarding timber contracts to non-harvesting bidders--and then, 12 days later, disclaimed the first letter and said it was still evaluating the policy.

"We haven't made a decision yet. Unfortunately and somewhat mysteriously, a letter got released that implied that we had in fact made a policy decision. We haven't tracked down exactly how that happened, whether it was simply an oversight in the system or something more surreptitious," said James Lyon, undersecretary of Agriculture for natural resources and environment, whose signature appears on both letters.

The formal petition to revise Forest Service policy to allow bids from conservation groups was lodged by the Bellingham, Wash.-based Northwest Environmental Alliance, the Oregon Natural Resources Council and the Southwest Center for Biodiversity, which unsuccessfully attempted to bid in two federal forest timber sales last year in Arizona and New Mexico.

"After 10 years of fighting bad timber sales one by one, we've come to realize that a big part of the problem is that we're stuck in an economic structure that forces the Forest Service to sell old-growth trees off. So we've come to believe that for us to really save the trees, we need to look beyond the biology and start to reform the economic structure which mandates that our forests be cut down," said Kieran Suckling of the Arizona group.

"If they allow environmentalists to buy these sales, they're going to make money, they're going to restore the environment, and they're also going to avoid lots of the conflict that has been raging in our forests for the last decade," Suckling said.

The sales under dispute stem from last year's salvage-logging legislation, which allowed the Forest Service to temporarily circumvent many normal appeals procedures to auction off timber damaged by fire or disease. The law expired last fall, but not before some of the heaviest cutting of federal forest lands since the 1980s, including several stands of healthy old-growth trees.

In Arizona, the Southwest Center attempted to bid on a 2,000-acre salvage timber sale on New Mexico's Gila National Forest, a region rich in spotted owl habitat but damaged in an arson fire. The group had proposed leaving the trees standing and planting new trees and grasses to offset the effects of the fire. The Forest Service declined to consider the bid and also refused to accept the group's high bid of $4,000 for a timber sale in Arizona's Coronado National Forest.

In Washington state, the proposed salvage sale on Thunder Mountain lay squarely in the middle of a vast, roadless area within the northern Cascades, a region that environmental groups have battled for years to protect.

In a state increasingly crisscrossed with logging roads, highways and new subdivisions, the icy peaks, snowfields and meadows of north-central Washington remain a lonely wilderness, wild enough for grizzly bears and home to the healthiest known population of lynx in the continental United States.

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