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The Planet

One Hell of a Ride(r)

The Planet, January 1997, Volume 4, number 1

by Marie Dolcini

It was a rough year for America's forests. The Sierra Club, like other environmental groups, was forced to play defense against congressional and industry-backed attacks, and thousands of acres of our natural heritage met blades under the clearcut "salvage" logging rider. But that was 1996. As we head into 1997, Club forest activists aren't just working to stem the destruction caused by "logging without laws" -- they're attempting nothing less than a complete overhaul of forest management.

Historically, forest protection has been among the Sierra Club's primary issues, but a year and a half of the clearcut rider has elevated forest management reform to an unprecedented level in the organization and with the American public. To a large degree, we helped create a pointed and informed citizen backlash by exposing the details of the forest free-for-all in anti-salvage editorials and letters to the editor in newspapers across the country. We focused public outcry through rallies and postcards, phone calls and faxes to congressional representatives and Forest Service officials. After losing our first attempt to stop the rider by 125 votes in March of 1995, we fell just two votes shy of repealing it in June of 1996.

The stage was set in July of 1995 when President Clinton ignored environmentalists' protestations and signed the clearcut rider as part of a 1995 budget-cutting bill. From that point on, all the laws that protect our forests, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, were suspended to facilitate "emergency salvage" logging and huge expanses of green trees were slated for the ax. The arrival of spring brought the first lawless clearcuts and the resulting ugly realities of landslides and stream and habitat destruction in the Northwest.

We filed suit in federal court. We lost. Our champions offered amendments to repeal the rider on the House and Senate floors. Again, we lost. The saws raged all summer long. By July the White House was listening more closely to environmentalists' complaints that healthy trees were being cut.

Vice President Gore called the rider the worst mistake of Clinton's first term. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman sub- sequently ordered the Forest Service to follow new, more protective guidelines. While a positive step, the Glickman directive fell short of repealing the law and failed to stop the destruction. As a result, a 1996 year-end "holiday rush" of some of the most egregious timber sales went forward before the rider expired.

Despite the fact that the rider died with the new year, the damage will continue as timber companies attempt to maximize profits by waiting for a friendly market before cutting trees purchased under the rider's terms. That means lawless logging will haunt forest activists well into the future.

"The massive destruction has been heartbreaking," said John Leary, associate representative in the Washington, D.C., office. "But it's revitalized conservationists across the country as never before. The spotlight is shining brightly on the shameless and irresponsible behavior of the timber industry and the Forest Service. We are now poised to mount a historic grassroots campaign to protect America's forests."

That campaign will combine public education, grassroots organizing and outreach to the media and key decision makers to expose threats to our forests at the national and state levels. Staff and volunteers plan to advocate for Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management reform based on forest ecosystem protection and full public participation. They'll also coordinate similar efforts with Canadian activists.

The key principles forest advocates aim to rally the public around include protecting clean water, watersheds and fisheries, eliminating subsidies and Forest Service slush funds and defending roadless areas and ancient old-growth. Current projects in the works include a forest activist tool book and workshops offering training in coalition building and media outreach.

We're also incorporating a No Commercial Logging Task Force into the overarching plan. Club members voted by a 2-to-1 margin last April to support an end to all commercial logging on America's national forests and other federal public lands. Task force chair Chad Hanson said that so far, he has elicited promises from 26 representatives to sign onto a letter sponsored by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) to end logging in national forests. "This is the sort of proactive national campaign that holds the distinct potential to strengthen and invigorate the spirit of grassroots activism in the Club," said Hanson.

For more information: Contact John Leary at (202) 675-2382; e-mail: <>

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