Environmental groups in Mexico and Canada have joined their U.S. counterparts in a claim that the United States undermined the North American Free Trade Agreement when it adopted a salvage logging program for Washington and Oregon.

The groups have taken their case to an environmental commission established by that agreement, where a finding in their favor ultimately could hurt Northwest timber harvests and sales of dead, dying or fire-damaged trees.The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of 26 groups (including groups in Mexico and Canada), contends the United States violated Nafta rules by suspending enforcement of U.S. environment laws. That was done, it said, when Congress partially opened logging on federal land that had been closed for six years to protect the "endangered" northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet.

The logging provision "is a far-reaching assault on U.S. public forests and environmental laws," the Sierra Club said in its petition. While the provision leaves environmental laws in place, it "eviscerates effective enforcement of those laws," it said.

The logging petition was filed with the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (Nacec), which was created by a Nafta side agreement out of concern that the Nafta signatories may use the pact to weaken or deliberately soft pedal on enforcing environmental standards.

The commission's mandate is to promote environmental protection and enforcement in North America.

The single petition on behalf of groups in the Nafta countries is in line with efforts by North American environmentalists to coordinate their battles and avoid inundating the commission with separate cases. A similar joint effort occurred earlier this year when environmentalists, led by Mexican groups, asked the commission to investigate mysterious bird deaths in Central Mexico.

In the United States, James Geisinger of the Northwest Forestry Association said this shift of the logging issue to an international forum won't intimidate the industry in its long-running battle with environmentalists to increase timber sales.

Bruce Lippke, director of the Center for International Trade in Forest Products, added that environmentalists "obviously are just switching legal courts used to override recent attempts to release timber sales."

He said it is not so much the amount of timber involved in this case that is important - a relatively small amount at perhaps 500 million board feet - as much as the precedent the Sierra Club's action could set.

Last July, President Clinton signed a budget reduction measure that included the so-called salvage logging rider drafted by Sen. Slade Gorton, R- Wash. The provision would permit timber companies to practice forest management techniques in 6,000 acres of timberland by harvesting and selling dead and dying trees.

It was backed by the Northwest timber industry, which has seen its production and export levels decline drastically since environmental laws were

applied to species in the region starting in 1989. More than 240 mills have

closed since that date and more than 30,000 primary mill and woods jobs have been lost. The Northwest's export share of forest products is down 24 percent since 1989.

But environmental groups said the logging rider goes too far because it also authorizes the cutting of healthy ancient forests in the Northwest and the cutting of healthy live trees across the nation under its broad definition of salvage logging.

Equally disturbing, they said, is the suspension of citizen appeals and judicial enforcement of U.S. environmental standards, including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, forest management laws and U.S. treaty obligations.

"This is exactly what the Nafta environmental agreement is supposed to prevent," said Patti Goldman, attorney for the defense fund. "It is hard to imagine a clearer violation of the Nafta environmental principles," she said.

Bill Arthur, another Sierra Club representative, said, "During the Nafta debate, many Americans feared that Mexico might lead a 'race to the bottom' by lowering environmental standards to help its industries."

It is ironic, therefore, that the United States is the first North American country to try to suspend its environmental standards, in this case to help the timber industry, he said.

If commissioners from two of the three Nafta countries approve, Nacec may investigate the charges and prepare a report. Its report could lead to further action, including government-to-government consultation and the creation of an arbitration panel that could impose fines against the United States or suspend trade benefits if a pattern of environmental "nonenforcement" is found.