In 1995, Congress passed the now infamous “Salvage Rider,” which effectively suspended environmental safeguards for three years allowing the U.S. Forest Service to ramp up industrial logging and road building across the American West, including in previously protected ancient, old-growth forests.
The rider was an unprecedented power grab by the timber industry, giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary sole discretion as to whether or not the Forest Service should conduct any environmental analysis of logging impacts and it completely did away with any administrative appeals while also severely limiting the ability of the federal courts to stop the damaging timber sales.
Perhaps one of the most egregious provisions in the rider was the “sufficiency clauses” that said any “salvage” timber sale would automatically be considered as meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, along with several other bedrock conservation laws. And just to be sure no other barriers stood in the way to this massive timber grab, the law exempted any timber sales conducted under the rider from “all other applicable federal environmental or natural resource laws.” Thus, it rightfully earned the moniker “Logging Without Laws.”
As they say, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and Congress is on track to do just that. Within the bipartisan infrastructure package passed by the Senate—and now before the House—Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) attached two amendments that will significantly increase commercial logging within national forests. One would let the Agriculture Secretary declare an “emergency situation” allowing the Forest Service to immediately authorize the logging of dead or dying trees, trees damaged by wind or ice, and “sanitation harvests” (i.e. clear cuts) to control insects and disease. The “emergency situation” is so broadly defined that it could include most any area on national forests not Congressionally protected.
Like the 1995 Salvage Rider, the Daines amendment would exempt logging from the National Environmental Policy Act. Luckily, the full Senate made some changes to this amendment, including taking out the provision exempting logging projects from “any other applicable law,” but the version it did pass still precludes the resulting timber sales from administrative review, and it curtails the courts from stopping damaging timber sales. The Daines amendment has no expiration date and makes any environmental analysis of those timber sales completely optional.
The Senate left Daines’ second amendment unchanged, and it would create yet another categorical exclusion—actions exempt from detailed environmental analysis—allowing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to log and clear up to 3,000 acres at a time to establish “fuel breaks,” a completely unnecessary provision given both agencies already have numerous categorical exclusion provisions in its regulations under the guise of reducing wildfires. Additionally, Congress expanded the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act several times adding more categorical exclusion allowances, one of which authorizes logging across 3,000 acres. Not only is Daines’ new provision unnecessary, it further erodes environmental safeguards meant to protect public lands and nearby communities.
Years of wildfire rhetoric, frightening images, and claims that we can control wind-driven, climate-exacerbated fires have led to a collective amnesia, paving the way for these terrible amendments. Instead of playing politics and stoking public fear to suspend environmental safeguards for more resource exploitation, lawmakers must tackle the main driver of wildfires—the climate crisis. No amount of logging, thinning or other “forest management” is going to stop the unprecedented drought and extreme temperatures gripping the American West. As the bipartisan infrastructure deal works its way through Congress, lawmakers must act to strip the dangerous Daines amendments from the package and carefully guard against similar measures from reaching President Biden’s desk. Please take action today.