The scream of chainsaws is once again splitting the air deep in the old-growth forests of Southern Oregon, where the scent of sawdust mixes with the tang of gasoline, bar oil, and an even more distinctive odor--the smell of greed.

The scene of the skullduggery is the Fremont National Forest, where the infamous Toolbox fire blazed in 2002. In the fire's aftermath, the U.S. Forest Service auctioned more than 10,000 charred acres for salvage logging. Enter one of our rogues, Crown Pacific Partners, which won the bid and inked a contract on May 25.

As it happened, Ivan Maluski of the Sierra Club was in Lakeview that day, when he heard from a Forest Service employee that Crown Pacific had started cutting down trees even before it signed the contract.

Armed with a digital camera, Maluski rushed into the forest and stumbled across a disturbing sight: freshly felled trees oozing sap, with sawdust still caked underfoot (see photo). Clearly, someone had been cutting down trees. Problem was, Crown Pacific wasn't supposed to let the chainsaws rip until it received the government's blessing.

Crown Pacific denies jumping the gun. "Neither Crown Pacific nor any loggers operating on its behalf conducted any harvesting activities on May 24 or 25," declared Greer Kelly, the log-supply coordinator for Crown Pacific's Gilchrist mill, in court documents.

There's more at stake here than itchy fingers. The Sierra Club and other green groups have filed a lawsuit to stop the sale on environmental grounds. Ordinarily, that would force the government to delay the harvest. But thanks to roguish rules pushed by the Bush administration, the U.S. Forest Service may short-circuit such lawsuits in an "emergency"--the definition of which is conveniently vague.

That means Crown Pacific may strip Toolbox of its timber long before the legal issues are sorted out. The bankrupt company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, certainly has a strong incentive to do so: Mired in debt, it may haul as much as 36 million board feet of lumber (enough to fill 7,200 log trucks) out of the Toolbox and related parcels at, um, fire-sale prices.