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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Northwest Forest Plan: Kindling New Turmoil

Air Date: Week of February 7, 1997

Despite President Clinton's attempts at his "Northwest Forest Plan", the continued logging under the Timber Salvage Rider and lack of local support have reignited the conflict. Terry FitzPatrick reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

CLINTON: The process we begin today will not be easy. Its outcome cannot possibly make everyone happy. Perhaps it won't make anyone completely happy. But the worst thing we can do is nothing.

CURWOOD: Soon after President Clinton was elected 4 years ago, he vowed to end the bitter war between loggers and conservationists in the Pacific Northwest. At the time the region was in turmoil. Logging was at a standstill because of court injunctions to protect the endangered spotted owl. The President said his Northwest forest plan was the solution. It reopened Federal lands to limited logging while attempting to manage the entire Pacific Northwest as a single ecosystem. The President's plan has survived a rash of court challenges, but it's failed to win much support among local residents. And a spate of new logging, under the so-called Timber Salvage Rider, has reignited the conflict. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.

(Trucks on the highway)

FITZ PATRICK: On Highway 12 in the Cascade Mountains, trucks laden with freshly cut trees are headed to sawmills in the timber town of Morton, Washington.

(Truck horn)

FITZ PATRICK: Despite tough times, logging is still the backbone of the Northwest's rural economy, employing more than 100,000 workers.

(Truck traffic)

FITZ PATRICK: But on Main Street in Morton, Bob Dick of the Northwest Forestry Association points out that things aren't what they used to be.

DICK: You look at the empty buildings, the dilapidated buildings. It's depressing to see places like that.

FITZ PATRICK: Loggers had hoped the President's forest plan might bring back the boomtown days of the 1980s. The plan did restore some logging on Federal lands, but only 25% of what the industry had been cutting just a decade ago.

DICK: That was probably beyond our worst fear, the reality of what happened. It was -- we were stunned. We were absolutely shocked at what ultimately came out.

FITZ PATRICK: Large corporations who control their own supply of trees on private land have actually done quite well under the President's program. That's because the withdrawal of Federal wood has made the remaining trees more valuable.

(Sawmill sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: The Federal cutbacks have primarily hurt smaller, family owned sawmills, which were already struggling because of foreign competition, automation, and the export of trees for processing overseas.

(More trucks)

FITZ PATRICK: Forty percent of the region's mills have shut down, putting more than 20,000 people out of work. One mill that's still open is run by the Pacific Lumber and Shipping Company in the mountain town of Randall, Washington. Here, workers convert raw logs into two by fours for home construction.

(Wood being sawed)

FITZ PATRICK: On a tour of the facility, company vice president Jill Mackee says it's been a scramble to survive.

MACKEE: Other mills have just gone out of business because their traditional source of supply has dried up, and the cost of the raw material has gone up dramatically because there's been a shortage in the system created by this withdrawal of Federal wood.

FITZ PATRICK: So you're the lucky ones.

MACKEE: Those who are currently operating are the lucky ones.

(Wood being sawed)

FITZ PATRICK: Environmentalists contend this day of reckoning was inevitable for the timber industry. For decades, they say, loggers have been cutting trees at a rate nature could not sustain.

(Running water)

FITZ PATRICK: Activists are divided over whether the President's forest plan has been good for the environment. Some remain furious that it doesn't completely protect the region's last stands of old growth forest. But other groups, like The Wilderness Society, have been willing to give the President's plan a chance. Still, even these activists are wary.

(Footfalls and conversation)

FITZ PATRICK: Steve Whitney is the group's regional director. And on a recent walk through the woods, he explains how they formed a citizen's police force to check up on local forest managers. Volunteers monitor logging to be sure environmental rules are strictly obeyed.

WHITNEY: The Northwest Forest Plan is just a plan. It's effect on us is a function of how seriously the land managers take their job to implement it properly, and the plan is just full of discretion. We knew that the plan would be protective of the forest to the extent there was a whole army of people throughout the region keeping their eye on the Forest Service.

FITZ PATRICK: But no amount of monitoring could stop what environmentalists consider to be the biggest setback to the plan. A rash of unexpected logging that began just as the program was taking hold. The timber industry, angry over the dwindling supply of wood, worked with Congressional Republicans to pass the Emergency Timber Salvage Program in 1995. The law was designed to let loggers harvest trees damaged by fire or disease. However, it also allowed some companies to clear-cut highly profitable stands of virgin old growth, the very forest Mr. Clinton had pledged to protect.

(Footfalls and conversation)

FITZ PATRICK: One of these clear-cuts occurred on a steep ridge along Carriko Creek, west of Seattle. Volunteer forest monitor Alex Bradley brought Mr. Whitney to survey the results.

(Papers being pulled from a case)

BRADLEY: I have some photographs of what it looked like before it started. These trees were actually standing right on this hillside that is now cut; this is exactly what was up there. And this was the owl forage habitat.

FITZ PATRICK: The pictures show thick stands of centuries-old trees. All that's left now is a mangled slash of debris and stumps.

(Footfalls)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Whitney brushed the snow off one stump for a closer look.

WHITNEY: You can see that it's a pretty old tree. I'm not going to take time to count these rings, but I think you have probably up around a couple hundred years old. And needless to say, this is one of a million stumps out here on this massive clear-cut.

FITZ PATRICK: As bad as a fresh clear-cut looks, industry representatives, like Bob Dick, maintain the salvage program did not devastate America's forests.

DICK: From the standpoint of what the salvage rider did, it allowed many people in the industry to survive. It allowed many people to keep their jobs that were looking at layoffs. In terms of environmental impact, my guess is that in 5 years the salvage rider will be an interesting footnote in history and not much more.

FITZ PATRICK: Others, however, contend the effects will be felt for decades. Nationwide, about 4 billion board feet of timber was sold under the salvage program before it concluded at the end of 1996. That's enough wood to fill a caravan of logging trucks, more than 7,000 miles long. Assessments are just beginning to determine how much healthy timber was cut, and the damage caused to sensitive habitat, such as salmon spawning streams. Activists like Alex Bradley say the clear-cuts not only left scars on the land, but have poisoned the political environment. She'll find it tough to trust the Federal Government in the future.

BRADLEY: This was real betrayal, these kinds of cuts, the whole salvage rider. There are people who had spent a lot of time working cooperatively with the Forest Service, and I felt totally stabbed in the back.

FITZ PATRICK: Although the salvage program cast a shadow on the President's Northwest forest plan, officials insist their original goal of a healthy economy and a healthy environment can be reached. Timber-dependent communities have received millions in economic assistance and work is underway to repair watersheds damaged by a half century of logging. Still, it could be decades before the region returns to health. The plan's ultimate success may hinge on the guidance of the Forest Service's new chief, biologist Mike Dombeck. He's told staffers to make forest protection their highest priority, but hasn't indicated how he'll bridge the rifts that still divide environmentalists and loggers.

(Gathering; ambient voices)

FITZ PATRICK: During his first appearance before Congress at a January hearing of the House Agriculture Committee, Mr. Dombeck was careful to avoid taking sides.

DOMBECK: I'm here to listen and learn on my ninth day on the job, and the themes that I will be talking about throughout my tenure in this job are basically sustaining the health of the land through a collaborative stewardship. Because I think managing the land is about stewardship and it's about people working together.

FITZ PATRICK: However, cooperation may ultimately be unattainable. Congressional Republicans are currently floating another proposal to dramatically increase logging, this time by rewriting the basic law that governs timber policy nationwide. And environmentalists are looking with hope to a decision this spring that may put coho salmon on the Endangered Species List. That could lead to further protections for Northwest forests. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

 

 

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