by Melanie Griffin
From the nation's capital to small-town city halls you could hear the chainsaws buzzing, revving up to shred habitat-protection laws across the country in 1998. Lawmakers were more than willing to listen to industry lobbyists who pushed for more logging, more drilling, more wetland destruction, more water pollution.
Enter Sierra Club activists.
Last January, when U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced a partial moratorium on timber road construction in some of the last remaining unspoiled wild forests, he heard the public roar with approval. Club activists turned out in force at citizen hearings across the country, wrote letters to the editor and garnered extensive press coverage of rallies and other events.
Congress took note, and by the time the timber industry brought its first wish-list bill to the House floor in late March, the forest protection issue had been in editorial pages across the country for months. The House rejected Rep. Bob Smith's (R-Ore.) H.R. 2515 - the so-called Forest Recovery and Protection Act - and voted instead to specifically protect wild roadless areas.
The annual appropriations process has become a regular battleground on forest issues, as conservationists come closer each year to dramatically cutting back taxpayer subsidies to the timber industry. After their defeat on H.R. 2515, timber-industry allies got nervous and decided to pre-empt this year's subsidy vote by signing off on a compromise to eliminate a small part of their road building subsidy. A big win was in reach, but this political deal resulted in less than half a loaf.
As the election loomed, the anti-environmental agenda in Congress began to lose steam and public opinion polls continued to show strong support for habitat protection. Bills to designate more wilderness in Alaska and Utah garnered more co-sponsors than ever before, each topping the 150 mark. H.R. 2789, the first bill ever to propose an end to all commercial logging on federal lands, secured 36 co-sponsors in its first year.
But anti-environmentalists took the campaign underground. During the last months of the Congress, activists were kept busy trying to fend off anti-environmental "riders" that were tucked into every massive spending bill. We lost some battles. Because of riders that were signed into law, motors are allowed in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Wilderness, an Air Force bombing range will expand into Idaho's wild Owyhee canyonlands, lands will be removed from the Petroglyphs National Monument in New Mexico for highway construction and logging in three of California's national forests will be doubled.
The chainsaws - and the Club's activism - weren't confined to the halls of Congress. In the southern states we fought chip mills, in California we fought for less destructive logging rules in the Headwaters Forest, and all across the country we were doing inventories, taking pictures, and otherwise working to get wilderness area protection for more forests, deserts and canyons.
There was good news from Utah, where two and a half years of inventory work by Wayne and Gayle Hoskisson and 600 other volunteers in the Utah Chapter and Utah Wilderness Coalition produced the most detailed citizen wilderness inventory the nation has ever seen. The groups mapped 9.1 million acres eligible for wilderness protection - 5 million acres more than were deemed eligible by a 1970 Bureau of Land Management survey. With the help of activists like Gordon Swenson, who volunteers his legal expertise to expose phony right-of-way claims by local government, the chapter will forge ahead into 1999 with a plan to educate the public on the need to protect all of these vanishing wildlands in Utah.
The lessons of 1998 are clear. Lawmakers find it hard to ignore public sentiment, but if unpopular moves are hidden as riders on spending bills, they can get away with it. In 1999 we'll urge President Clinton to demand a clean and clear appropriations process free of anti-environmental riders. (Send him a letter like this one , if you'd like.)
We'll also go to work to improve the interim roadless moratorium. Previews of the document indicate that it won't be good enough.
We will continue to push for wild lands protection in Alaska, Utah, the Northern Rockies and elsewhere. And we will continue to be out front in the fight to permanently protect all of our national forest lands by ending commercial logging on them, once and for all.
Go on to the next article, "Animal House . . . and Senate."
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