Time is running out for Utah's two largest lumber mills.

Officials with the Escalante Sawmill in Escalante and Kaibab Forest Products in Panguitch and Fredonia, Ariz., predict they will be forced to shut their doors within 18 months, idling hundreds of workers and weakening the economy of southern Utah."We're hoping with some small timber sales and enough private timber we can hang on for another 18 months," said Sheldon Steed, forest manager for the Escalante mill. "After that, the pipeline is dry and it will stay that way for a long, long time."

Kaibab officials are even less optimistic. "We have enough raw materials to run until October or November of 1991," said Jack Voris, Kaibab's manufacturing manager at the Panguitch mill.

Both officials are hoping to bid on new timber sales next year in order to keep the mills operating. But both are pessimistic those sales will be offered.

And they mince no words about the whys and wherefores of the impending shutdowns: environmentalists.

Industry officials say the U.S. Forest Service has been employing much more stringent policies regarding proposed timber sales due to the constant threat of appeals and litigation by environmental groups.

Environmental appeals and threats of appeal have delayed new timber sales by years, they said.

"It has become forest management by litigation," Voris said. "We have been told by the Forest Service to expect appeals on every single timber sale and to expect to fight the results of those appeals in court if the environmentalists are turned down."

Steed agrees. "The appeals are an effective delay tactic. The longer the environmentalists can delay the sale with appeals, the tougher it is for us to stay in business. Their intent is to gradually eradicate logging operators, starting with the big ones and working down to the small operators." Environmentalists call such statements hogwash, adding that the timber industry should look at the unprofitable economics of southern Utah lumbering instead of making scapegoats out of environmentalists.

"The National Environmental Protection Act encourages public involvement and it requires the Forest Service to consider all environmental impacts," said Bill Patric, the national forests advocate for the Utah Wilderness Coalition. "And that involvement is bound to result in some delays.

"But we are not against timber harvesting; it is a legitimate use of public lands. But we have tried to stop those that are detrimental to certain aspects of the forest resources."

Patric, whose coalition represents some 30 environmental groups, notes there have been only two appeals of timber sales on the Dixie National Forest and one on the Fishlake National Forest. And all concern small sales.

But he adds that as the lumber industry targets more old-growth forests in roadless areas, environmental appeals could assume a more aggressive posture.

Voris charges, however, that virtually all sales in Arizona are being challenged, and that U.S. Forest Service officials in Utah have been told to expect the same on all new sales there.

About half the raw timber for Kaibab's two mills comes from the Northern Kaibab National Forest in Arizona. Voris says the sale of 24.9 million board feet of raw Arizona timber is tied up by environmental appeals, and 10.7 million board feet more is tied up in litigation.

"Without raw timber to harvest, there will be layoffs," Voris said. "And in Garfield County, timber is about all the industry these folks have left."

Traditionally, the Forest Service reviews a proposed sale with an "environmental assessment," a quicker and less costly method than the much-more-detailed environmental impact studies. Forest Service officials acknowledge they are expecting appeals on most sales of southern Utah timber, and that has prompted more environmental impact studies.

"Timber sales in the recent past on the Dixie have not been controversial and are being handled by environmental assessments," said Rollo Brunson, a timber and planning staff officer for the Dixie National Forest.

"Many areas have been logged in the past and have regenerated. But the proposed areas for future harvests have not been logged before, and a lot of folks have different concerns over issues like old growth, roadless areas, wildlife and threatened species. The new sales are the ones we are expecting appeals on."

And it's the upcoming sales that require the more comprehensive environmental impact studies, Brunson said.

Brunson added that local forest managers are being asked to do more environmental impact statements, which require more field work and detailed publications of findings, all without an increase in staff or budget.

And that process has bogged down the process of clearing new timber sales.

"There aren't enough experienced people in the Dixie National Forest to dot all the i's and cross all the t's to meet the NEPA requirements," Steed said. "And in the meantime, we run out of timber."

Steed said eventually the "process will iron itself out" and more timber sales will come on line. But the bureaucracy of the process makes that unlikely before two years, and probably not until three or four years.

Kaibab operates not only the mill in Panguitch but also a similar mill in Fredonia, Ariz., next door to Kanab. About 80 percent of the people who work at the Fredonia plant live in Utah.

The Panguitch mill employs 74 people and processes about 20 million board feet of logs. The Fredonia mill employs about 200 people and processes about 50 million board feet of logs per year. More than 100 additional people are employed in actually harvesting the timber.

The Fredonia mill is anticipating a layoff of 90 people in April due to shortages of timber. The Escalante mill has already laid off an entire shift of about 30 people because of raw timber shortages.