Western timber interests won another skirmish yesterday in their campaign against a sealed-bidding law Congress adopted last year to stem collusive practices in the purchase of federal timber from the U.S. Forest Service.

By a vote of 11 to 3, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee recommended supplanting the largely untested statute with a bill offered by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), to restore oral auctions as the general rule in the West for sales of national forest timber.

He maintained that sealed-bidding rules decreed by Congress last September would inevitably favor the bigger lumber companies at the expense of small sawmills and the Western towns where the mills are an important part of the economy.

Church denied any "attempt to protect collusive practices," and said this was the furthest thing from the mind of any of the lawmakers seeking repeal.

The timber industry of the West has been seeking to upset the law for months, urging a return to the oral auctions that have prevailed since shortly after World War II in sales of national forest timber. The Forest Service has said it is easier to prevent collusion with sealed bidding, but has substantially diluted the law already in the face of industry protests.

Under regulations promulgated earlier this month, the Forest Service said it would allow oral auctions for 75 per cent of the sales in nearly 200 so-called dependent communities in the West. But critics of the sealed-bidding law have been pressing for outright repeal.

One of the opponents of the repeal effort, Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) protested that the Church bill would be more restrictive than the original 1897 Forest Service law, which leaves the service with full authority to decide what bidding method to choose. Church's bill would authorize sealed bidding only in cases where the Secretary of Agriculture suspects collusion.

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) sought unsuccessfully to tack on stiff penalties, including a five-year ban on purchases of Forest Service timber, for anyone convicted of conspiring to bid prices up against outsiders or of any other collusive practices. He contended that existing antitrust laws did not adequately cover all the potential shenanigans of oral auctions, but he was defeated by a vote of 12 to 2.

The House Agriculture Committee has already voted to strike down the sealed-bidding rule, but the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has concurrent jurisdiction in the Senate, has yet to take action.

Following the vote to report out the bill, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) suggested that the Forest Service be called upon "to vigorously enforce existing laws" against collusion.

"Aren't they doing it now? Bumpers demanded.

Of course, Jackson hastily declared, amending his remarks to suggest that the Forest Service "continue to vigorously enforce" the laws.