The Reagan administration, through its fiscal 1983 budget and a set of new forest-management proposals, is preparing to call out a lusty "Timber-r-r" in the national forests.
The budget, envisioning a sudden outbreak of health in the sickly housing industry, anticipates substantial increases in sales of timber even though private logging companies have several years' supply of standing trees.
And the proposed forest-management regulations, drawn up principally by a former timber-industry executive now at the Department of Agriculture, could ease the way for industry to cut more coveted, older-growth trees in the Northwest.
The proposals have set off alarms among environmentalists and a few legislators on Capitol Hill and raised less dramatic concern among some professional foresters. A House Agriculture subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing today to review the proposed regulations.
The new rules would alter--"simplify" and "streamline" are the words used at USDA--a set of guidelines that took the Carter administration several controversy-ridden years to prepare under the National Forest Management Act of 1976. That law was intended to prevent overcutting, protect fish and wildlife and keep some parts of the forests in wilderness.
Opposition to the Carter administration's approach was led by the National Forest Products Association, which assigned John B. Crowell Jr., then general counsel of the giant Louisiana-Pacific timber firm, and NFPA staff member Douglas W. MacCleery to draft comments. Many of their proposed changes were rejected.
The 1980 election, however, changed the picture dramatically. Crowell became assistant secretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, which put him in charge of the U.S. Forest Service. MacCleery became deputy assistant secretary.
The Reagan revision of the Carter regulations was directed by MacCleery. Crowell said yesterday that he was not involved in the process, nor did he review the new proposals before they were published, "basically because I have had so much else to do."
MacCleery's effort has not pleased everyone.
Rep. Jim Weaver (D-Ore.), chairman of the House forestry subcommittee, says flatly, "They want to liquidate the national forests....The only thing that will save them now is a massive public outcry, but I fear that may not occur."
Responded Crowell: "That is utter nonsense and Jim Weaver knows better than that. So far away from the truth....Weaver pretends he is hurt more than he really is."
But Weaver found believers last week, persuading the Agriculture Committee to make major revisions in the USDA's fiscal 1983 budget proposals by reducing funds sought for opening roads into virgin areas of the forests where the new sales would be conducted.
Weaver and allies in the conservation community argue that the budget proposals, in combination with the proposed management-regulation changes, would assure a virtual "open season" on timber in the publicly owned forests.
Given the depressed state of the housing industry and a backlog of 34 billion board-feet of timber sold to loggers but not felled, they contend, USDA should be in no hurry to step up new sales.
"Crowell wants to make these new sales in roadless areas of the national forests. The old sales have occurred in areas already roaded," Weaver said. "Once they cut roads into these areas, they no longer can be considered for wilderness designation. They are going out of their way to sell timber in these areas."
A central point of contention is the administration's budget proposal to increase national-forest timber sales from this year's 11 billion board feet to 12.3 billion board feet in fiscal 1983.
The theory is that an improved national economy will bring new demands for lumber and that higher sales will help USDA offset some of its forest-operating expenses.
Crowell and others in the timber industry argue that the 191-million-acre forest system can and should be cut at a much faster rate to help meet commercial demands for wood.
"The real issue," Crowell said yesterday, "is whether the national forest lands are going to be managed and productive or unmanaged and unproductive . . . . As long as sales are not operated, we are not getting the receipts and we are not able to carry out forest-management planning."
Crowell said USDA policy is that the forests should be cut as extensively as possible while reforestation proceeds apace.
But critics such as Weaver and Peter Kirby of the Wilderness Society doubt that reforestation can be carried out economically in many of the old-growth areas of the Northwest or that wildlife and recreation values will be protected adequately.
Weaver said that long-established forest-protection policies would be overturned by the new approach allowing USDA to sell timber faster than it is replaced.
The new regulations would let individual forest supervisors routinely decide if the cut is to be stepped up.
Crowell said the so-called "even-flow" policy is "absurd when you are dealing with old-growth forest that has a larger inventory than can be accommodated under even-flow . . . . These forests have been underharvested in the past."
"This is unbelievable," Weaver said. "The 1976 law clearly said that if it is not economical to put trees in certain areas, you don't cut what is there now. You don't 'mine' the forest, yet this is exactly what the proposed regulations would allow to happen. It's madness."
Added Kirby: "Their objective is to intensify the old-growth cutting. The new regulations will make it easier to have those big timber cuts. And at the same time they are going to push new roads into roadless areas that might be considered for wilderness designation."
MacCleery, in an earlier briefing on the proposals, acknowledged Kirby's contention that the new rules would allow a reduction in wildlife habitat in order to increase timber harvests.
But he, like Crowell, insisted that the regulatory changes are intended to "streamline" and "simplify" forest policy.