How much wood should a woodcutter cut if a woodcutter could cut wood? That debate has been raging in the western United States for more than a decade, with timber workers and communities getting the worst of it while the Clinton administration sided with antitimber activists, choking off access to most “public” forests. In the last year, however, a major fight has been brewing not over living trees but about dead ones — tens of thousands of acres of burned but salvageable trees left by two wildfire seasons of nearly unprecedented intensity.Some individuals and companies want to keep their sawmills and communities working by making productive use of the wood, which will rot, be consumed by insects and go completely to waste if not cut relatively quickly after a fire. But government red tape and environmental obstructionists have conspired to slow the timber-sale process to a crawl, ensuring that millions of board feet that could be put to productive purposes will be wasted.Recognizing that time is of the essence, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Dale Bosworth recently proposed streamlining the process on a salvage-timber sale in Montana's 1.6 million-acre Bitterroot National Forest by restricting the right of outside groups to appeal the sale. The streamlining is part of a larger restoration plan for the badly scorched forest, including tree planting and streambed repairs. But the move sparked protests from green groups opposed to all timber harvests, even those needed to clean up burned forests or restore a balance to overgrown, fire-prone stands. So the controversy was bucked upstairs to Department of Agriculture headquarters, where it fell in the lap of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey.Rey was bound to take heat whatever he did. A decision to back Bosworth was sure to draw howls from the antilogging lobby, lawsuits from its army of attorneys and familiar accusations that the Bush administration is antienvironment. A reversal of Bosworth's action potentially would undermine a USFS chief who has pledged to streamline cumbersome procedures and return more management decisions to the local and regional level. It also would have been another blow to rural timber towns and independent mill operators badly in need of work.In the end, Rey backed Bosworth, saying that “immediate implementation of the [forest-restoration] projects will reduce unacceptable risks to public safety, private property and the national forest system resources.” Green groups practically trampled each other in the rush to the courthouse.A retreat on the salvage-timber issue would have represented a compound waste from the perspective of taxpayers, who pay for USFS mismanagement of forests; pay to fight wildfires and conduct restoration projects resulting from that mismanagement; pay the paychecks of bureaucrats gumming up the timber-sale process; and now must pay the lawyers who fend off the lawsuits that result from virtually any timber sale on “public” lands.In return, average Americans get ugly, overgrown, unhealthy and fire-prone forests. They don't get forest-restoration funds resulting from the sales or productive use of resources that otherwise will go to waste. There are lost tax revenues and higher welfare payments when sawmills and mill jobs go down and higher prices for wood products due to an artificially constricted supply.Wake up and smell the wood smoke, America! More than just the forests are getting burned because of federal forest policies and the activism of a small cadre of litigious druids.