WILD FOREST REVIEW November 1994
WILDFLOWERS LAUREN ESSERMAN
|Breaking the Conventional Wisdom:||The Saga of the Bryant Bill|
the disappointing 103rd Congress stumbled to a close last month, the proposed
Forest Biodiversity and Clearcutting Prohibition Act, surprisingly, had
more than a hundred cosponsors in the House and, in the eleventh hour, made
an appearance in the Senate. While this is still far short of the votes
needed, it is impressive progress, especially during a session when environmentalists
made few gains. Even more encouraging - and peculiar - the bill is getting
stronger - not weaker - through each successive round of the legislative
Commonly known as the Bryant bill, this legislation would put an end to clearcutting on all federal land - Forest Service, BLM, and Fish and Wildlife Service lands as well as Indian reservations and military bases. It would give the agencies a mandate to conserve and restore native biological diversity "in each stand and each watershed throughout each forested area". And now, in its new incarnation (S.2543), the version introduced in the Senate by David Boren (D-OK) on October 7, it would prohibit all logging - even helicopter logging - in roadless areas and offer complete protection to 16 areas of particular concern, such as the 94,000-acre Cove/Mallard in Idaho, a vital wilderness corridor.
This bill is the only existing legislative vehicle for nationwide forest policy reform, yet, unfortunately, in the five years since its debut in the House, neither the large, national environmental groups who prefer softer compromises, nor the radical vanguard of the movement, who say the bill doesn't go far enough, have thrown much weight behind it. Nonetheless, the understaffed, underfunded Save America's Forests, leading a coalition of 500 grassroots groups from their modest office at the foot of Capitol Hill, have been patiently building a constituency behind it for the last four years, and their efforts are beginning to pay off.
"Everybody thought we had about a zero chance of getting to this point, and we're going to go a lot father," says Carl Ross, who, together with Mark Winstein, set up Save America's Forests (SAF) in 1990 to give grassroots forest activists throughout the country a voice in Washington. Ross is optimistic that if the movement starts to invest more effort into it, the bill could pass within the next four years.
The person who got all of this started, of course, is Ned Fritz, director of the Dallas - based Federal Forest Reform, who has devoted the past 20 years to the struggle to end clearcutting on national forests. After leading two high-profile lawsuits and writing three books on the subject, Fritz, together with Texas congressman John Bryant, crafted the bill in 1989. "We found that courts are a difficult place to establish forest reform," Fritz says now, looking back on the genesis of the bill. "Even if a court finds in your favor, an appeal or a completely different jurisdiction could find the other way. Having an airtight law became an obvious desirability."
In 1976, Fritz, a retired trial lawyer, led his group, the Texas Committee On Natural Resources, in a suit to stop the Forest Service from clearcutting a patch of national forest in East Texas. He argued that clearcutting was illegal on three grounds: the Organic Act of 1897, the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act (clearcutting precludes several uses protected by that act, such as recreation, wildlife, and soil conservation), and NEPA, which required the Forest Service to prepare an EIS before proceeding with an activity that was likely to have a significant impact (at that time, the agency did not routinely prepare EISs for clearcuts).
The case was tried during a watershed year for forest policy. Only months before, in the landmark Monongahela decision, a West Virginia hunters' group, the Isaak Walton League, successfully argued that clearcutting violated the Organic Act of 1897, which established the purpose of the national forests and stated that the agency could only sell trees marked for cutting. Fritz's case followed suit, winning a permanent injunction on all clearcutting on national forests in Texas. However, the Monongahela victory had put the timber beasts in a fury, and they swept through the Hill with a vengeance. With the help of Senator Hubert Humphrey, they passed the National Forest Management Act later that year. NFMA explicitly legalized clearcutting, a practice the agency had been using on a widespread basis since 1964, the year of the Wilderness Act. As a result, the Texas and West Virginia injunctions were both overturned on appeal.
Now, nearly 20 years later, the Forest Biodiversity bill, once a pipedream, is beginning to gain momentum on the Hill, in large part due to the relentless, door-to-door lobbying efforts of Save America's Forests. This past year, Bryant's bill, H.R. 1164 gained 58 new cosponsors in the House - bringing the total to 107 - went through two subcommittee hearings, and was, for the second time, introduced in the Senate. Moreover, for the first time since the passage of NFMA, Congress was drawn into a debate on the evils of clearcutting. This was in May, when Congressman Bryant proposed a statewide version of his bill as an amendment to Pat Williams's weak Montana Wilderness Bill. The intrepid Bryant made his proposal in the face of strong opposition from the powerful Minnesota congressman Bruce Vento, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Natural Resources. "He's been fearless," says Ross.
The proposed amendment won 142 votes, far short of the 218 need to pass, but enough to win the attention of the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, both of whom finally wrote strong letters to Congress endorsing Bryant's bill in June. This swayed the League of Conservation Voters to put the Forest Biodiversity Bill on the LCV scorecard, a rating that congress people eye anxiously when courting the green vote. It remains to be seen whether the nationals, having finally endorsed the bill, will now spend any money or effort on it.
Meanwhile, the contents of the bill have been getting more palatable each time it is reintroduced, largely a result of SAF's ongoing dialogue with grassroots
activists. The original version, visionary for its time,
indeed fell far short of the mark. It did not protect roadless areas.
It did not even ban all clearcutting. "The original bill had this
clause in there that clearcutting was okay on ten percent of the forests,"
says Ross. "We said, that's got to come out."