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Who will take the lead on old-growth?

A friend whose judgment I respect once observed that by the time a difficult policy question has been clarified in Washington, the answer is already in place somewhere. Watching--and participating in--the anguish to seek a reasonable solution to the battles over old-growth forests, endangered species, and the timber economy of the Pacific Northwest has made me go back and reflect on that observation.

This Association took the position two years ago that the situation out there is so complicated and so controversial that Congress will have to develop a new legislative basis upon which those public forests can be managed. We felt that a solution, even though it cannot achieve all that each party in the controversy seeks, can at least establish a far more predictable and, it is hoped, much better forest-management system. We were convinced that proper legislation can help the agencies manage the forests in a more sustainable fashion, ease a tightening legal entanglement that diverts too much energy and money, and help the people and towns of the region realize a more stable basis upon which to plan economic development.

Two years have passed, and no such solution has been found. Congress is still searching, and our optimism about whether any solution is closer at hand tends to ebb and flow with each new day's events. New legislation has more clearly defined the areas where most of the parties agree and the issues that divide them, and that is good news. It seems that the principal players-environmental groups, the forest-products industry, and the affected members of Congress-are all convinced that a legislative solution is both needed and possible. That's good news.

But each new report brings to the issue a bewildering confusion of new numbers and new estimates. Advocates of one side or another seize upon the estimates that support their positions, and fiercely discredit the ones that are unfavorable. Each legal decision brings a new complication that must be considered. Now, adding an element of confusion, electoral politics are heating up in Oregon, and senatorial candidates for the 1992 election are already accusing each other of selecting "facts" to fit their political postures. None of this helps the legislative process a whole lot.

So the process grinds slowly, and no easy solution seems to be in sight at the moment. But that doesn't mean nothing is happening. To the contrary, the situation in the Pacific Northwest is changing rapidly. This issue of AMERICAN FORESTS attempts to capture the flavor of that change, and what it might mean to the people and forests of the region.

What we find, to no one's great surprise, is a great deal of discontent. It seems clear that the management systems on the remaining old-growth forests are undergoing significant changes, old-growth harvest levels are being reduced significantly from the peak levels of the late 1980s, and rapid economic adjustments are underway. Those adjustments are painful for the people and communities caught in them. Not the least distressed are professional foresters and lumbermen who, after learning, practicing, and preaching the virtues of production forestry all their lives, are being asked to change to a new form of management based on more attention to ecosystem values.

No such change in basic values, professional guidelines, and economic impacts can occur without great disruption and dislocation. But the fact that everyone seems unhappy with the current situation and its uncertainty doesn't make finding a permanent solution any easier.

It can be argued that much of the solution is coming into place in the forests today, with or without legislative reform. The Forest Service, through its "New Perspectives" initiative (see page 49), is leading the way toward redefining some of the basic management objectives and methods on the national forests. The Congress, mainly through the appropriations process, is reducing the annual timber-sale levels on the National Forest System at a rapid pace. The courts are insisting that the land-managing agencies protect endangered species caught up in forest ecosystem alterations, and the Congress shows no signs of relaxing the legal protection for those endangered species.

The forest-products industry, while fighting the prospect of reduced federal timber supplies at every turn, is modernizing mills, streamlining operations, looking at partnerships abroad, and generally doing what business does best in a free-market system-adapt to changing economic conditions. The communities and families affected are probably carrying the brunt of the suffering, as people lose jobs and face lifestyle changes that they neither want nor are very well equipped to face. The suffering is not just economic-it takes a very heavy toll on the social and cultural life of the region as well. Even there, however, adjustments are occurring as people search for, and find, what they must do in order to survive.

It is hard to say so without sounding callous, but that is often the way things work. Other examples abound. Farm families and towns got torn apart terribly in the 1980s, mining families in the eastern coal regions don't know where their future lies these days, and a huge fishing economy on the eastern seaboard has just about collapsed in recent years. Banks and S&Ls vanish overnight. Now we are talking about closing 80 military bases and shutting down major aerospace and defense plants that grew to depend on federal contracts.

Companies shut down, thousands of jobs disappear, small towns board up. To the people involved in every case, these adjustments are enormously disruptive. The timber adjustments in the Pacific Northwest are not any easier than, or much different from, those that other people, industries, and regions suffer. They seem almost inevitable, and there is little evidence, judging from the past, that any kind of federal legislation or government program can do more than ease the pain while the transition inexorably takes place.

The political problem is this: If Congress steps forward tomorrow with a new legislative solution for Pacific Northwest public forests, the region's huge economic and social dislocations will be blamed on that legislation--no matter what it tries to accomplish. At present the problems can be blamed on a wide variety of other villains. It is "their" fault. "They" can be the environmentalists, the courts, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the industry, the foreign competitors. Some even blame the spotted owl, which, so far as we know' is oblivious to the whole ruckus.

The Bush Administration is taking full advantage of the political value in laying low on this issue. Administration witnesses go to Congress saying they don't like any of the legislative proposals being considered, but they are unwilling to propose a substitute, or even appoint a high-level Administration team to negotiate an agreement, as AFA has urged them to do. We don't know what their reasons may be, but it appears that the President's advisors are convinced that taking criticism for not being a leader on this issue has fewer political liabilities than taking the heat for the inevitable pain that will be associated with any solution that might emerge.

When AFA called for a legislative solution two years ago, it was in hopes that the transition pain in the region could be minimized. Our position then was criticized most severely by the people and industries of the region, who thought that somehow change could be avoided. Some people, it appears, still hold that hope.

But it seems clear that significant changes are underway, and that they will continue. A deliberative approach through legislation is still needed to help strike a balance between economic development and the needs of endangered species and give the force of law to the changes already occurring. If the politicians wait much longer, the legislation will simply be a recognition of the obvious, because the new forest-management systems-and the new economic realities of the region-are being created on the ground today. The people most affected, and too often blamed for the current situation, are building the solutions. It isn't easy, or pretty, but our hat is off to them.
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Title Annotation:forest management policy
Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:editorial
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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Next Article:Ruminations at the woodpile.

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