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A hoot for the future; the spotted owl may answer a loaded question: is sustainable management possible in Northwest forests?

In the rapidly disappearing old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl symbolizes the controversy surrounding the future of the region's remaining ancient forests. As with any symbol, the bird represents a larger cause. The owl, which nests almost entirely in the tree-top cavities and broken snags of old-growth forests, is dependent on the protection of these forests for its survival. It has therefore become the focal point for debates regarding the future of these magnificent forests.

Unfortunately, the attention focused on the owl has led to the characterization of the old-growth issue as an owls vs. timber-industry jobs" debate. This oversimplification obscures a very basic truth: the environmental and economic health of the region are inextricably linked - one cannot prosper at the expense of the other. Forest management that threatens wildlife and the environment also undermines the region's economic future, dependent not only on commodity values but also on the quality-of-life accompanying a healthy and beautiful environment.

Currently, environmentalists contend that the region is being driven along an unsustainable course of timber-resource extraction. "Every forest-products multinational company in the Northwest Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade, Potlatch, etc.) is logging at a rate that exceeds sustained yield," writes B.J. Williams of the January 1989 issue of Pacific Northwest magazine. They are also following a policy of liquidating old-growth. Georgia Pacific and Louisiana Pacific have logged their Northwest holdings and moved most of their corporate operations to the Southeast.

"The smaller the timber cog in the corporate gear, the more pronounced the trend seems to be," Williams notes. "Plum Creek, which manages Burlington Northern's two million acres of land-grant timberland, is logging off its mature timber at a rate that will liquidate those holdings in 10 to 12 years." But a Department of Natural Resources employee who monitors logging for Washington says the timeframe is even shorter: "Try three to five years."

This accelerated logging is a response to several economic stimuli. In a time when corporate timber-management decisions are being made by MBAs more often than by foresters, the emphasis on improving the "bottom line" profit margin is driving the rapid harvest of valuable old-growth forests. Asset-rich, cash-poor timber companies are classic "takeover" candidates in today's business market. Corporations see the liquidation of old-growth "assets" as a means to defend themselves against such hostile takeovers. Furthermore, the strength of the Japanese yen against the American dollar-as well as Japanese demand for high-quality lumber-has led to record exports of unprocessed logs from the region's state and private lands.

Environmentalists contend that oldgrowth resources on federal landsNational Forests and lands of the Bureau of Land Management-are also being harvested at disturbing rates. The threat is compounded, they say, because the Forest Service has overestimated the old-growth acreage remaining in Oregon and Washington. The Wilderness Society recently released a detailed analysis of the Forest Service's timber and vegetation inventories for six of the 12 National Forests located on the west side of the Cascades-the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, Olympic, and Gifford Pinchot in Washington and the Mt. Hood, Willamette, and Siskiyou in Oregon.

While the Forest Service's draft forest plans say that 2.5 million acres of old-growth exist on the six forests, the Society's analysis "show that only 1.1 million acres meet the ecological definition of old-growth developed by Forest Service and BLM scientists. This is only 45 percent of the acreage of ancient forests claimed by the agency," and only 15 percent of the total net acreage in the six forests studied.

While the environmental community seeks to limit harvests of oldgrowth forests on public lands, the forest industry has actively pursued maintaining or even expanding current harvest levels. The industry has brought both appeals and political pressure to bear on the Forest Service to continue harvests of old-growth. Industry spokesmen, such as Ralph Saperstein of the Western Forest Industries Association, contend that environmentalists are using the spotted owl as a "surrogate" in an attempt to lock up additional old-growth acreage as Wilderness. Saperstein points out that 2.4 million acres are already designated as Wilderness, parks, or wild and scenic river areas in Oregon alone. "That should be enough to satisfy conservationists," he concludes.

Spokesmen for the industry repeatedly charge that environmentalist appeals and lawsuits are "limiting timber supplies and shutting down the region's timber industry." Reports of mill closings appear frequently in the region's newspapers. A moving account recently published in The Oregonian describes one such incident in Sweet Home, Oregon: "The blue paint on the butt clearly identified as 'last log' the six- foot-diameter piece of hemlock rolling onto the headrig carriage at 10:39 a.m. Friday. Twelve minutes later, the last slab cut from the 350-year-old log by sawyer Tom Youmans dropped onto the conveyor. Within a few more minutes, the whines, hisses, and bangs of a working sawmill were no more.

"The saws and other equipment will be stripped from the Willamette Industries plant. The closure leaves the Sweet Home area with seven woodproducts mills, compared with about 20 during the peak in 1960, Willamette officials said. The 63 employees laid off will seek other jobs or retire.

"Signs in the sawmill told part of what workers thought about the situation. The owl won and it's over!' one sign declared. john Alexander, who worked 40 years at the mill, said he blamed environmentalists, not the owl. It's amazing to me how they can put so many people out of work. They're a lot more greedy than the lumber companies'. "

The millworkers' concerns were echoed in a recent statement of the National Forest Products Association (NFPA), and in a speech delivered by one of the industry's strongest allies, Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR).

An NFPA press release stated, "The wave of mill closures sweeping the West portends a major economic disaster with increasing unemployment shaping up in forest-dependent communities." Similarly, Senator Hatfield criticized environmentalists as having little or no understanding of the economic havoc that declining timber harvests would have on the timber industry or the region. "These people have little or no stake in the outcomes they cause,' Hatfield charged.

To date, none of the National Forests on the west side of the Cascades have released a final forest plan. These forest plans will guide the management of timber and other resources for the next 10 to 15 years.

Considerable controversy has surrounded the drafting of these plans, as it has become apparent that they may reduce the region's timber harvests.

Nevertheless, at least five of the region's draft forest plans have proposed to harvest timber at a rate that arguably exceeds sustainable rates. These "departures" from sustainable levels are allowed if the forest plans to reduce its future harvest in such a way as to produce a volume of timber that is sustainable if harvest levels are averaged over the life of the forest plan. Although legal, these departures will accelerate the depletion of old-growth.

As important as the amount of remaining old-growth is the distribution of those stands that are ultimately protected. The protection of large, intact blocks of old-growth is necessary to maintain a functioning ecosystem with the essential conditions for dependent species like the spotted owl. Small, scattered remnants of old-growth essentially lose their ecological value as ancient forests. Old-growth expert and Forest Service researcher Dr. Jerry Franklin estimates that for every ancient forest acre that is clearcut, another 2.6 adjacent acres are degraded. Road construction can also fragment old-growth habitat. Present Forest Service management that scatters clearcuts and roads across the landscape eliminates far more old-growth than just the area actually harvested.

Environmentalists have pursued a variety of avenues-with varying success-to reduce harvests of ancient forests. By participating in the forest-planning process and requesting administrative and judicial review of agency decisions, they have sought more balanced management for the region's forests. Balanced management is seen as vital to the protection of both the economy and environment of the region. As Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resource Council succinctly notes: "Any job dependent on the destruction of other species is a job not long for this world, anyway."

In 1984, four conservation groups appealed the Forest Service's 1984 regional guide that established standards for forest plans in Oregon and Washington. The environmentalists claimed that the guide's provisions for the spotted owl were inadequate to insure the bird's long-term survival.

In March 1985, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Agriculture directed the Forest Service to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the regional guide to provide more complete consideration of spotted owls.

After several years of analysis and maneuvering, and the release of a controversial draft SEIS in 1986, the Forest Service recently released the final SEIS, which will guide spotted-owl management for the next five years. Designed to "minimize the impact that protecting the spotted owl will have on harvest levels," the SEIS calls for the protection of 1,000- to 3,000-acre blocks of owl habitat and the reduction of future harvests by only three percent.

Rick Brown, a National Wildlife Federation resource specialist in Portland, termed the SEIS a "disappointment" that "fails to address the biological needs of the owl." The plan would leave 85 percent of the owl's oldgrowth habitat available for harvest at the current rate of roughly 40,000 acres per year. The protected blocks of habitat are too small and too scattered to effectively protect the owl.' The plan essentially postpones any significant steps to protect old-growth habitat for five years, at which time the agency plans to re-evaluate its options and management policies. Because of these and other concerns, environmentalists tried to appeal the management decisions accompanying the SEIS to the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, who declined to review the agency's decisions. The groups have subsequently challenged the agency in court.

Meanwhile, in response to the delayed release and expected content of the SEIS, several organizations petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to declare ("list") the spotted owl as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

On December 17, 1987, the FWS announced its decision not to list the owl, saying that the bird could be protected through better interagency cooperation and improved management of existing programs. One environmentalist close to the issue noted, "FWS biologists at the local level supported the listing of the owl, but higher-level FWS officials are more concerned about the political implications." Following the denial of their petition, the environmental groups challenged the agency's decision in court. In an order issued last November 17, the U.S. District Court for western Washington ruled as "arbitrary and capricious" the agency's finding that the owl was not threatened or endangered. The FWS has until May 1, 1989 to complete an additional review of its decision.

Editors' Note: On March 23, as this magazine approached press time, U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer placed a 60-day restraining order on 140 National Forest timber sales in the Pacific Northwest. The order blocks the sale of almost one billion board-feet of timber and means delays and perhaps temporary shutdowns for the region's timber industry. A trial date is set for June 13 to determine the long-term fate of the 18,600 acres of old-growth affected by this lawsuit.

In spite of seemingly irreconcilable views about the future of forest management in the Pacific Northwest, one thing is apparent-change is inevitably coming to the region's forest industry. Older mills are closing or being remodeled and workers are losing their jobs as modernized mills with automated saws and production lines are increasing production capacity.

Even without additional environmental protection, the remaining volume of old-growth timber-public and private-is simply too small to sustain the timber industry at current harvest levels. The "mining" of old-growth will not provide either the long-term jobs and economic prosperity or the quality of life that can continue to attract new businesses to the region.

If change cannot be avoided, the real question facing the government, industry, and environmental groups is, "How will we meet the challenges and opportunities that accompany the changes?" The region must develop a policy of sustainable forest management that supports both the economy and the environment. Several issues need to be addressed to craft a more sustainable course for the forests.

Increasing the emphasis on longer-term management. Current economic incentives are driving the liquidation of old-growth forests on private lands. State and/or federal tax incentives could encourage the protection of ancient forests. State severance taxes for timber could be used to discourage harvests of old-growth, and provide funds for land protection, local schools and roads, and other related purposes. On federal lands, increased effort should be made to manage second-growth forests, so these forests can effectively contribute to future timber supply. Meanwhile, additional protection of remaining federal old-growth forests is warranted.

Creating a more sensible export policy. Although old-growth logs are not exported directly from National Forests, log exports have a profound effect on the market in which old-growth logs are harvested and sold. Half of Washington's timber harvest went abroad as raw logs in 1987.

If independent mills were able to buy more logs from state and private land, they would be correspondingly less dependent on ancient federal forests.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR) and the independent timber mills are supporting federal legislation that would allow states to ban the exports of raw logs from state land. The bill that DeFazio promoted during the last Congress would not ban exports directly. Rather, it would allow states to limit the percentage of state-land-grown logs that can be exported.

Directly limiting the volume of logs that can be exported is not the only option, and indeed may not be possible in the era of "free trade.' The federal government could tax log exports while leaving the export of finished products untaxed. A modest tax would create an additional incentive for foreign buyers to buy American lumber and plywood rather than logs. The tax could also generate revenues to purchase lands for additions to National Forests.

Addressing the NIPF question. Although by no means the answer to the controversy over ancient forests, NonIndustrial Private Forest (NIPF) lands can be part of an overall strategy to protect old-growth. Great productivity gains are possible on these lands. Acre for acre, these private forests can grow wood faster than National Forests, as they are generally more conducive to timber management.

This is not to suggest that we should or even can create a program that will encourage the conversion of all NIPF lands to tree farms. Far from it. These lands are held by a large number of private owners, for a wide variety of reasons, many of which do not include timber harvest. On the other hand, it is still reasonable to assume that-with the proper information and incentives -some of this land could produce commercial timber, and help ease the demand for National Forest fiber.

Providing for diversification of local and regional economies. Powerful forces, both within the agency and without, drive the Forest Service to satisfy the timber requirements of mills in timber-dependent communities. Current agency policies, however, serve only to delay the inevitable decline of certain communities as timber supplies are depleted, while jeopardizing critical non-timber resources and economic opportunities.

In these communities, the Forest Service is apparently playing the role of a rural development agency, supporting its actions on the grounds of 'promoting community stability.' If the Forest Service is going to serve a development function, it should work with Congress and other agencies to create a viable strategy to serve the economies of areas where environmentally and economically sustainable supplies of timber do not exist. These communities need to develop other economic activities to generate reliable jobs and economic growth.

The fight to protect our ancient forests depends on dispelling the notion that protecting old-growth will devastate the forest-products industry and ultimately the regional economy. While inevitable changes are already under way within the industry and the region, sustainable forest management can support both a viable timber economy and a healthy environment. The present course of action can provide neither.
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Author:Hunt, Frances A.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1989
Words:2682
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