COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- Even on a day when a late-summer rain coats the woods,
it is clear that Idaho Panhandle National Forest is sick.
Beetles have sucked life from thousands of acres. Floods have torn out mountainsides
and stirred up old mining pollution. A century of fire suppression and logging
have radically altered the forest fabric.
To save this forest, one of the nation's biggest at 2.5 million acres, federal
officials have concluded that they have to burn or log sections of it, tear out
some roads and then hope that nature takes over the healing.
The Bush administration and Western Republicans like that idea, especially
the logging part. But the administration is pushing to go further: to suspend
environmental laws and citizen appeals so logging in dangerously fire-prone forests
like this one can be done without disruption. The White House has asked Congress
to exempt about 10 million acres of federal forestland from environmental reviews
to speed treatment of overgrown forests.
But as the Bush plan moves through the Senate this week in the form of a rider
promoted by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the resistance among environmentalists
and some Western politicians has grown fierce. A tentative peace that fell over
public forests this summer, during one of the biggest most disastrous wildfire
years in history, has been replaced by a political battle that threatens forest
Environmentalists say President Bush is using fire treatment as a way to let
the timber industry log without laws.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, D-Ore., accuses the administration of betraying an agreement
among Western governors to treat fire-prone forests without suspending the law
or taking away judicial appeals. Bush signed on to the governors' 10-year plan
last May, but then took it a step further in an initiative unveiled three weeks
Opposition to the Bush plan promises to be particularly intense here in the
Idaho Panhandle, which has at least one legendary trout stream and a tradition
rich in silver mining and logging. Several retail-level environmental groups have
persistently thwarted plans here to treat forests by cutting down trees.
All 16 proposals to log or thin the Panhandle's woods in the last two years
were stalled by appeals from these groups, forest officials said. Still, the plans
are moving ahead, usually in a modified form to answer the concerns of critics.
One logging plan would cut 1,400 acres in an area that holds water for thousands
of people in Idaho and Eastern Washington. It has been appealed by the Lands Council,
based in Spokane. The group also appealed another plan, which called for quick
removal of beetle-infested trees.
"There are a lot of dead and dying trees out there that need treatment," said
Dave O'Brien, spokesman for the managers of the Panhandle National Forest. "But
the law gets very difficult to comply with. We end up spending so much time just
trying to make these forest decisions bulletproof."
The biggest hindrance to healthy forests, Bush officials say, are laws that
force managers of public land to spend too much time responding to objections
But what the Bush administration characterizes as "gridlock" and "analysis
paralysis" is seen by others as the messy but necessary products of making land
decisions in a democracy. The president's plan, they say, would take the public
out of public forest management.
"This plan is about as extreme, wrongheaded and overreaching as it could possibly
be," said Michael Francis of the Wilderness Society.
The wilderness group is not opposed to thinning forests for fire prevention
near urban areas, but does object to large-scale logging in the name of forest
Even if the Senate approves part of the Bush plan this week, and environmental
laws are suspended for the one year called for in the Senate amendment, the Forest
Service has an enormous task in trying to reduce fire risk in the West. About
70 million acres of Forest Service land are dry, overgrown and ready to burn after
a century of fire suppression. The Forest Service no longer talks of preventing
fires in these areas, but letting fire do the work it once did in the natural
"It is absolutely critical that we get fire back into those woods," said Dale
Bosworth, the chief of the Forest Service, in an interview.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company