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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Endangered Species Act Dominates Oregon Senate Race

Air Date: Week of

Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on the pitched election battle between four-term Republican incumbent Bob Packwood and veteran Democratic Congressman Les AuCoin for the U.S. Senate. The race has largely become a referendum on the fate of the region's forests, the northern spotted owl and the Endangered Species Act.


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

For more than two decades, two Republicans have represented Oregon in the United States Senate: Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood. As the battle has intensified between the timber industry and those who seek to protect old-growth forests and the threatened spotted owl, both senators have become powerful allies of the lumber interests.

In Washington, Senator Hatfield was recently handed a stiff defeat on a bid to effectively weaken the Endangered Species Act and shrink further the habitat of the spotted owl. Meanwhile, back at home, his colleague Senator Packwood faces perhaps the challenge of his career over this controversy. Packwood is up for re-election, and his opponent, veteran Congressman Les AuCoin, a Democrat, favors a strong Endangered Species Act. . . and the race has become a referendum on the issue.

As part of our series on this fall's elections, Oregon Public Broadcasting's Henry Sessions has our story.

(Sound of people entering office)

SESSIONS: In the logging town of Mollala, an hour south of Portland, a group of timber industry supporters meet every week to talk politics. At the top of their list this fall is the race between four-term incumbent Senator Bob Packwood and Democratic US. Representative Les AuCoin of Portland. Like the others in this group, Joanne Foster, who's married to a log-truck driver, has little regard for AuCoin.

FOSTER: He has a really cute dog. . . (laughs). . .I saw in D.C.

SESSIONS: Lorna Maybun is a secretary at a logging company in Mollala. She says she didn't even bother voting until a few years ago, and being a staunch conservative, she wouldn't have voted for Packwood anyway, since he's pro-choice on abortion. But she says this year she will vote for him.

MAYBUN: My eyes are on one thing, and one thing only. And I don't care if it's Democrat, Republican, if it's President, if it's Senator, if it's Congress or whatever it is. My eyes right now are on the Endangered Species Act. That's the only thing that's going to help us, so anybody who supports rewriting that Endangered Species Act has my support and I don't care what party they belong to.

SESSIONS: The jobs-versus-owls question has shaped Oregon politics since well before the owl's listing as a threatened species in 1990. But never before have two candidates split so vehemently on the issue. Packwood was once considered the most pro-environment Republican in the Senate. In the 1970's, he spearheaded a successful effort to create a huge national scenic area in Hells Canyon in Eastern Oregon and Idaho. But as the spotted owl crisis has developed, he's become more and more friendly to the timber industry, and more and more hostile to the Endangered Species Act.

PACKWOOD: Never before we came to the owl was the magnitude of the act realized. We've seen it before used in the snail darter, we've seen it used at the Grey Rocks Dam with the whooping crane. But you were never in any of these past instances talking about thousands and thousands of decent middle income people being put out of work.

SESSIONS: Packwood has become one of the leading voices in the Senate for changing the Endangered Species Act. He wants economic concerns included in recovery plans for threatened or endangered species. Currently, those plans are made based only on biology.

Les AuCoin, who's finishing his ninth term in the House, has often leaned towards the timber industry with votes to free up Federal timber sales for cutting, and to limit the public's right to challenge those sales in court. But environmentalists say at least he's better than Packwood. He's long depended on a largely urban constituency in Portland that favors protecting the environment. AuCoin says the Northwest timber industry has been shrinking for decades, not only because of environmental restrictions, but because of sagging housing markets and to some extent the exports of raw logs from private lands. He blames overcutting in the national forests, encouraged by the Bush and Reagan Administrations, for sacrificing not only the environment, but the overall health of the forest economy. AuCoin says that pattern would only be reinforced by weakening the Endangered Species Act.

AUCOIN: Bob Packwood would have people believe that if we gut one of the prime environmental laws that governs and helps us protect forest health in the ecosystems of our great national forests, that somehow we'll get more jobs. I'm saying that is bunk. And it will lead us to the collapse of the environment and the collapse of timber jobs tomorrow, because, you know, an unhealthy forest not tended to will not sustain either wildlife or jobs in the future.

SESSIONS: In a state where one in six jobs are still connected with the timber industry, polls suggest that given the stark choice between jobs and the environment, voters will put jobs first. Pollster Mark Nelson has studied Oregonians' attitudes about the timber industry and the environment. He says while AuCoin may be doing a better job of bringing out the complexity of the issue, Packwood's simple jobs-versus-owls line gives him an advantage.

NELSON: This is a very complicated issue. It has been reduced to choices by Senator Packwood. Congressman AuCoin tries to explain a broader type of picture, and he lose the public in doing so.

SESSIONS: Nelson says when the issue is put another way, most voters do favor the preservation of some old-growth forests along with the protection of jobs. And AuCoin's supporters say he's doing a good job of pushing the notion of a Northwest economy that's not so dependent on natural resources. Scott Pratt is the chair of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

PRATT: Right now, Packwood and AuCoin are just about dead even. So people are not necessarily buying this argument that it's owls versus jobs. We're out there trying to say no, it's a question of what kind of job you're gonna have, and whether it's a job now or a job later. We're looking to make sure that people will have jobs in the future and we don't just have some economic wasteland that turns a lot of these communities into ghost towns because there's no trees left.

SESSIONS: There are other issues which may help decide this race. Packwood is criticizing AuCoin for bouncing 81 checks at the now-defunct House bank. AuCoin has accused Packwood of waffling on a number of issues, most notably on a controversial anti-gay rights measure on the November state ballot. But timber has become the overriding issue, and the timber debate has taken on significance beyond the borders of the Pacific Northwest. Recently, both presidential candidates made appearances in Oregon on the same day. George Bush echoed Packwood in saying he wouldn't reauthorize the Endangered Species Act unless it's changed to reflect economic concerns. And like AuCoin, Bill Clinton emphasized a balance between forest protection and timber supplies for the region's sawmills. And whoever wins the presidential race will probably need a strong ally in the Northwest Senate delegation to get anywhere on the timber issue.

For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland.



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