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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Fate of the Northwest Forests

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood asks analyst Russell Sadler about what lies in store for the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. While Clinton's forest plan may lead to the lifting of injunctions against logging , the region's timber problems are far from over.


CURWOOD: In March of 1991, US District Judge William Dwyer blocked logging in much of the Federal old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest because of what he called "a deliberate and systematic refusal by the Forest and Fish and Wildlife Services to comply with laws protecting wildlife." Of course the judge was speaking specifically about the endangered Northern spotted owl. Well, not long ago the new Administration came up with a plan to protect the owl as part of a broad Northwest forest package, and by the end of the year Judge Dwyer is expected to decide whether the logging injunctions should stay or go in light of the President's plan. To find out how the judge might rule, we caught up with forestry analyst and syndicated columnist Russell Sadler at member station KSOR in Ashland, Oregon. I asked Sadler for his predictions.

SADLER: Predictions are dangerous, but as a practical matter the legal people I talk to say that Dwyer no longer has any basis to issue an injunction. He issued his original injunctions between, because of the disparity between the narrative in the forest plans and the amount of logging that was allowed. The Clinton plan is quite different. Although the environmentalists don't like it, and the timber industry doesn't like it, because neither of them get what they want, the plan is grounded in some science, and there is some justification between the narrative and the cutting level, and it's going to be very difficult for Dwyer to maintain that the Federal Government isn't obeying the law any more.

CURWOOD: So now if Dwyer decides to let the injunction lapse, what happens here? Who do you think are the big winners and who are the big losers?

SADLER: These are people's lives and there aren't winners and losers. There's a basic fact of life out here - this is the last of the virgin forests in the United States. Some old-growth has been set aside in wilderness areas, and then there is what is left that is in dispute now, and the Clinton plan does two things with it. Some of it it puts in forest reserves, where there's very little logging, and others, there's forest reserves where some logging is permitted, is what got the environmentalists upset. There are not enough trees for the timber industry and there is some logging and the environmentalists don't like that.

CURWOOD: Now, Clinton's plan didn't deal with that part of the Pacific Northwest forests that lie east of the Cascade Mountains. What's the latest on those lands?

SADLER: That's land that's seriously in trouble for reasons that are very different than the Douglas fir region on the west side of the Cascades, from northern California all the way up to the Canadian border with Washington. The stuff east of the cascades has been logged by the book over the years, and it turns out now, they're rather sheepish about it, but the foresters are admitting the book was wrong. And what they did was take out the Ponderosa pine and the other commercially-valuable species and leave lodgepole and what-have-you, which turned out to be far more disease-prone than they imagined, and there are all kinds of bug kills sweeping those forest. They're going to have to deal with that in a different way, and it will be a very different sort of a cultural prescription for managing either side of the, the far side of the mountains.

CURWOOD: I need some more predictions, Russell. For one thing, can you tell me what you think the forest will look like there in another ten years?

SADLER: Well, there'll be two kinds of forests. There'll be Federally-owned forests, some of which will still look like virgin forests, just like when Columbus bumped up on the East Coast of this continent, okay? There'll still be some biological diversity, and those areas will be used as gene pools, as the scientists want them. The rest of the Federal forest is going to be a second-growth forest where trees will probably be allowed to grow to a hundred to a hundred and fifty years old before they're logged again. Private lands are going to look very different. Private lands are going to look more and more like Southern tree plantations. Right now because of this injunction on logging on Federal lands out here, the timber industry is cutting private reforestation that's only 30 and 40 years old.

CURWOOD: That's pretty young.

SADLER: It's very young. Experienced timbermen of my acquaintance just look at those logging shows and cry, you know, it's too early, it's too early, they say. This is what we need for the next generation. And of course we won't have it because we're cutting it now. And that is going to cause serious disruption in the transition of the Pacific Northwest timber industry from its old-growth economy to a second-growth like it is in the rest of the country. Trees are so valuable out here right now that in metropolitan areas like Portland and Seattle, people can send their children to college by logging five or six trees from their suburban five acres. And they're doing it, they're going into these neighborhoods and taking these trees out and a good straight 150-foot-tall, two-foot-around Douglas fir tree's worth $5 - 8,000.

CURWOOD: That's pretty amazing.

SADLER: Its practical problem, of course, is that we're cutting our seed corn, we're cutting the stuff that we need ten and 20 years from now and that's going to put pressure on logging on Federal lands ten and 20 and 30 years from now.

CURWOOD: And what will the timber and labor situation be like at that time?

SADLER: The industry will be smaller, it will employ fewer people, it will much more resemble the timber industry in Minnesota and Maine and Arkansas now, because we will be a second-growth industry rather than an old-growth industry. We were the last in the country. There's a little of it left on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and then that's it. That will be the last of the large-scale virgin forests in North America.

CURWOOD: Russell Sadler is a syndicated columnist for print, television and radio in the Pacific Northwest.



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