Author(s):    Scott Allen, Globe Staff Date: June 29, 1997 Page: A1 Section: Metro
READSBORO, Vt. -- This remote grove of beech trees in the Green Mountain National Forest is a favorite feeding area for black bears in the hungry weeks before they hibernate. The bears eagerly hoist their 200-pound bodies up the beeches to gorge themselves on nuts, leaving the smooth, gray tree trunks scarred by claw marks up to 60 feet in the air.

But the bears' picnic grounds may soon be sacrificed to an old -- and increasingly controversial -- practice in New England's two national forests: commercial logging. The US Forest Service wants to build a logging road into the heart of the Lamb Brook bear-feeding area so private contractors can remove some trees from 1,200 acres of the forest "Most people think the national forests are protected from logging already. It took me five years to convince my mother," said Mat Jacobson of the Green Mountain Forest Watch, which has sued to block the Lamb Brook timber sale. "I don't think it makes any economic or ecological sense."

Not only does logging damage the environment, he said, it costs taxpayers money: about $1.6 million a year on the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, according to a federal study. Once the Forest Service pays for logging roads, environmental reviews, payments to host communities, and other costs, Jacobson estimated, it will lose another $100,000 from selling timber rights at Lamb Brook.

The fight over Lamb Brook, now before a federal appeals court in New York City, is part of a growing debate over commercial logging on federal lands. While environmentalists oppose the widespread clearcutting of forests, mainly in the West, Congress has been more sympathetic to the charge that taxpayers are subsidizing the timber harvests than to environmental arguments.

US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, a Brighton Democrat, believes he has the votes to win in his effort to stop the Forest Service from funding road construction in national forests, which he estimates would save $90 million a year.

"If new roads for logging purposes are warranted, practical, and profitable, why shouldn't these corporate giants build their own roads?" asked Kennedy.

Logging in national forests is small-scale in New England compared to the West, but the issue is more sensitive here because the two forests are so popular. The Green Mountains get 1.5 million registered visitors a year, while the White Mountains are the most visited national forest in the country, with 7 million guests annually.

Forest Service officials defend the logging program, pointing out that national forests were set up to serve as a reserve wood supply for loggers. Moreover, they say well-planned logging helps the forest by creating open spaces that some animals need and by encouraging the growth of young trees.

"We are creating wildlife habitat," explained Rick Alimi, assistant ranger in the White Mountains' Saco District.

But Jacobson and other environmentalists say it flies in the face of reality to claim that the Forest Service is improving the woods. At Lamb Brook, for instance, biologists say the new logging road will open the once-remote woods to all-terrain vehicles and other noisy human traffic that is likely to drive bears from one of their richest feeding areas.

Now, Green Mountain Forest Watch and the Conservation Law Foundation are preparing a campaign to drastically curtail logging in the forests by requiring the Forest Service to consider the interests of wildlife and recreational users first. They want the Forest Service to include the new philosophy in its management plans for the 1.1 million-acre preserves.

Another group, Massachusetts-based Restore: The North Woods, wants to go further, forbidding commercial logging in the White Mountains altogether. "The White Mountains are of such national significance that it is time to look at it for a possible national park," said David Carle of Restore.

In the meantime, the three groups, as well as the Sierra Club and others, are fighting half a dozen proposed timber sales in the two forests.

But logging in the region's national forests has many friends as well: small towns like Readsboro that receive 25 percent of the revenues from sales of timber cut within their borders, and wood products companies that view the forests as a source of high-quality maples and other hardwoods.

Leon Favreau of Bethel Furniture Stock in Maine, for example, said he used to get one-third of his wood from the White Mountains, but environmental challenges to the sales have helped reduce that amount to zero.

"The wood coming off the White Mountain National Forest is critical to the furniture industry in New England," said Eric Kingsley of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, promising to fight to preserve logging in the forest.

At the same time, several environmental groups have declined to criticize National Forest logging. Forest researcher Steven Hamburg of Brown University's Center for Environmental Studies said both national forests were heavily logged at the turn of the century, and the woods grew back impressively.

"The evidence isn't that strong that you shouldn't be cutting in the White and Green Mountains," Hamburg said.

The battle over logging in the Whites and the Greens has been brewing since 1990, when Jacobson started his one-man crusade in Vermont, working as a chef to support his fledgling group. Along with activist Carle in New Hampshire, he began filing appeals to timber sales on the grounds that the Forest Service was not carrying out the required environmental reviews.

Jacobson succeeded in blocking six timber sales in three years, while Carle twice stopped a timber sale along the scenic Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. Logging in the two forests fell to about 25 million board feet a year, about half the Forest Service's cutting limit.

Jacobson admits that logging can sometimes help a forest by removing diseased trees or clearing space for a new kind of habitat, but he says the Forest Service has a conflict of interest in managing it. Critics argue that logging in the national forests is driven by an accounting system that rewards the managers of national forests that meet Congress's approved logging quotas, by increasing their budget.

For instance, Congress has reduced the timber harvest budget to the Green Mountain National Forest over the past four years because of low logging numbers. "When we don't make our timber targets . . . we don't move forward with the appropriations money," said Green Mountains spokeswoman Kathleen Diehl.

Despite budget incentives to log more, adds Carle of Restore, most timber sales are a drain on the US Treasury. A General Accounting Office study found that from 1992 to 1994, National Forest timber sales lost $1 billion, largely because the Forest Service diverts 90 percent of its income to pay for tree-planting, road-building, and other programs.

Forest Service officials quarrel with the idea that they are losing money, arguing that such studies don't count the benefits to forest health, wood products companies, and even recreation seekers who use the logging roads.

And they say the activists themselves drive up the costs. "If we're really subsidizing anything lately, we're subsidizing environmental analysis," said Alimi of the White Mountain National Forest.

The Lamb Brook timber sale may provide a clue to the future since it marks the first time the activists' appeals have made it through the legal process. A federal judge stopped the project in 1995, ruling that the Forest Service hadn't adequately studied the impact on bears and songbirds.

Forest Service officials appealed, arguing that Judge J. Garvan Murtha misunderstood their project. They said the Forest Service will allow all trees to be removed from 30 acres, not 300 acres as Murtha wrote in his decision.

Now, both sides await the federal appeals court decision on Lamb Brook, while in New Hampshire, environmentalists and the Forest Service are expecting the decision on an administrative appeal of a timber sale at the Kearsarge North area of Bartlett.

Even if they win, however, environmentalists say the victories are only temporary. The Forest Service finally carried out modified versions of several timber sales that Jacobson and Carle had initially stopped.

"All the legal process can do is delay," said Steve Saltonstall, a Conservation Law Foundation lawyer who filed the Lamb Brook suit along with Jacobson. "The strategy is to delay while we build public support to stop it."

Real victory, said Saltonstall, could come over the next four years as the Forest Service rewrites its management plans for New England's national forests. Conservation Law wants the plan to downgrade commercial logging as a priority and increase protections of woods, wildlife, and recreation.

But with politicians such as Kennedy increasingly criticizing the Forest Service, Diehl said, Washington may restrict logging in national forests before the management plans are done.

"I have an idea that it's going to change altogether in the next five years," she said. "They may not completely eliminate timber harvesting, but they are going to limit it

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