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Forest Health in the United States
SOURCE: R. Neil Sampson and Lester A. DeCoster © 1998 American Forests

The 1995 Salvage Rider

In 1994, wildfires burned 4 million acres, mostly on federal land in the West, and the Forest Service spent over $1 billion for fire fighting. The smoke still hung in western valleys as the fight heated up over what to do with the fire-killed timber. At the time, the Forest Service estimated that there were some 18 billion board feet of fire---and insect---killed timber on the National Forests, of which 4-5 billion board feet could be salvaged economically without damaging the environment. In general, the dead timber had to be harvested within two or three years, before it lost economic value to decay and insect damage.

In Congress, legislation was introduced to expedite timber salvage on federal lands by exempting salvage sales from administrative appeals, limiting the time available for judicial review, and easing environmental planning procedures. The legislation was attached as an amendment to a rescissions bill for the fiscal year 1995 budget, thus the name "salvage rider." President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill, citing opposition to several nonforest provisions, as well as criticizing the salvage rider.

Congress and the President worked out compromises on the other issues, and the President signed the bill (PL. 104-19) on July 27, 1995. The salvage rider established the expedited program through December 31, 1996.

Implementation of the bill was immediately surrounded by controversy. Environmental organizations labeled it "logging without laws," a charge contested by the Administration, who directed the agencies to salvage the timber under existing environmental laws.
As implementation proceeded, the Forest Service found itself in court battling with both the forest products industry, who claimed the agency was not following the law effectively, and the environmental organizations, who claimed the law was being extended beyond its intent.

One particular area of controversy had little or nothing to do with dead timber. One section of the rider ordered the release of green timber sales that had been halted because of concerns for environmental issues. Those sales had been directed by section 318 of the 1990 Appropriations Act.
They had been prepared for sale, but withdrawn by the agencies because of environmental concerns. Many of them were "old growth" forests, increasingly prized as wildlife habitat and ecological reserves, and the environmental opposition to their harvest was intense.

For many in the forest conservation community, the salvage rider was a nonevent until the section 318 sales were added in the Senate version of the bill. For the most part, all of the salvage sales that could be done in the 18-month period were well into the process of environmental assessment, and most of the decisions had been made. But the section 318 sales set off a storm of opposition that overwhelmed virtually any assessment of the salvage rider's environmental impact.

The General Accounting Office reviewed the salvage sales conducted under the rider, and its 1997 report noted that several of the salvage rider's features, such as expedited reviews, seemed to have caused little impact in terms of either the amount of timber harvested or the harvest methods used.
They also reviewed 14 salvage sales that had been challenged by environmental organizations on the grounds that they contained too many green trees to qualify as "salvage," and found that the Forest Service had adequately documented its reasons for including these sales under the salvage rider definitions.
For all these studies and opinions, however, one fact remains clear. The 1995 salvage rider poisoned relations between the Forest Service, the forest products industry, and the environmental community. Any future attempt to expedite forest health treatment on the National Forests, regardless of its scientific basis, will have to withstand the challenge that it is not "just another salvage rider."

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