If a tree falls in the forest…

The local news tends to open with dramatic shots of a big,raging fire. Nothing new, really, as there’s been plenty of fierycarnage overseas for months and months now, but the source of thismonth’s “hottest” conflagrations is much more organic. It is fireseason in the Western states again, which means it’s only a matterof time before the debate begins over what to do with the timber inthe aftermath of all those fires.

A sneak preview of coming attractions can be obtained byfollowing the current uproar over salvaging timber from the 2002Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyou National Forest. The main issue makingthat salvage so controversial is that it involves logging aroadless area, a big no-no in the conservationist playbook. Thesalvage techniques have been approved by the Bush administrationbut there will inevitably be legal challenges.

Last week the administration shrewdly passed the buck onresponsibility for the environmental impact their policies mighthave when they announced they would let individual states make thedecision on how much protection to give to roadless nationalforests. Governor Ted Kulongoski wasn’t too happy about thisdevelopment.

“They want me to do what they’re supposed to do,” Kulongoskitold the Oregonian. “I’m assuming they think I’m supposed to do allthese public hearings and all these things. I go through all ofthat and I have no control of the issue – what they decide. I takeall the political heat, and they go back in a closet someplace andmake a decision.”

However, “regime change at home” in November might not cause anawful lot of change in the way roadless logging is regulated.

For one thing, this type of logging isn’t nearly as common asthe level of controversy attached to it would lead you to assume.It can be prohibitively expensive and the timber industry tends touse it as a last resort. In fact, the Biscuit salvage is the onlymajor roadless-area windfall the Bush administration has thrown thetimber industry’s way in Oregon or even in the Continental U.S.

Forest-management standards haven’t really changed all that muchsince Clinton was in office. Bush’s comically named Healthy ForestInitiative basically institutionalized ideas that had already beenin practice for years before he became president, and differingpositions being thrown around by the 2004 candidates mostly boildown to ideological differences rather than actual policy.

Kerry wants to end timber industry subsidies, even though thatdoesn’t directly affect where or how heavily the industry would doits logging. The Democrats’ idea is that the goal of forestmanagement is conservation with the needs of the timber industrybeing accommodated as kind of a necessary evil.

Bush obviously comes at the issue from the viewpoint of servingthe industry, appeasing the environmentalists just enough to …actually, he isn’t too worried about appeasing them. Meanwhile, theforests continue to be run much the way they have been for years,irrespective of any rhetorical debates in Washington.

Bush has deservedly earned a reputation of somebody who doesn’tlose too much sleep worrying about the environment. He’s staffedall his natural resource oversight posts with lobbyists from thevery industries that pose the biggest threat to those resources.Unfortunately, even if he does get the boot in November it won’tnecessarily mean a reprieve for national forests in Oregon oranywhere else.

Forest management policy has sunk into a comfortable rut that itwon’t soon be shaken out of by a change of presidentialadministration or by the efforts of environmental activists. Thanksto a few fringe characters and to the publicity efforts of theindustry, the prevailing image the middle-of-the-road public has ofthe “environmental movement” is that of wild-eyed hippies torchingSUV dealerships and chaining themselves to trees. For any stridesto be made in the conservation of Oregon forests, the mainstreampublic will have to start demanding change as well. Until then,don’t hold your breath for any substantial reforms to come along inthe next four to eight years regardless of what happens at thetop.