Seeing the forest for the trees on `Bunker Hill'. The battle over Oregon's `old growth' forests

LIKE its historic namesake, Oregon's Bunker Hill has become symbolic of a national political struggle. At issue is 40 acres of forest managed by the United States Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) near the small town of Marcola. This fight has now been embraced by the national movement to protect the remnants of vast ancient forests that once blanketed the western flank of the Pacific Northwest. Called ``old growth'' by foresters, these 200- to 1,200-year-old woodlands contain such tree species as Douglas fir, cedar, spruce, and hemlock. About 6 million acres remain in Washington and Oregon, a tenth of the virgin forest that existed before the coming of white settlers. Old growth contains some of the most valuable timber in the nation, with an aggregate value in the billions of dollars. But its economic worth also lies in other resources such as water and wildlife and in what resource analysts call amenity values: scenic, recreational, and ethical.

With private stocks cut over, most of the remaining old growth is on public land managed by the US Forest Service (USFS) and BLM. While these agencies wrestle with the problem of how much to save, harvesting continues. Most of what has been preserved so far grows in Washington. In neighboring Oregon, old growth is at greater risk. Despite efforts to diversify, the state's economy remains anchored in wood products with many mills geared for old-growth processing. A fraction of Oregon's old growth is now protected. At current harvest levels, the rest will be gone in several decades.

Conservationists, who want the majority of existing old growth removed from timber production, base their case on economic and ecological grounds. A growing body of academic and government research has shown that old growth is vital to the health of the region's forest ecosystem and hence its economic base. Ancient forests comprise a rich, diverse habitat, which is home to over 100 wildlife species including trout, salmon, and steelhead vital to commercial and recreational fisheries. Recent studies also show that downed and standing old trees store and release nutrients necessary to younger trees (called second growth).

The issue has been complicated by related efforts to protect creatures designated by government scientists as ``indicator species'' of the health of old growth as a whole. The threat posed by logging to one old-growth denizen, the northern spotted owl, prompted wildlife officials in both states to mount a joint campaign to set aside considerable acreage to ensure that species' survival. Industry in turn has represented the resource issue as one of ``birds vs. jobs'' and has mounted a massive media campaign on this theme, which includes recipes for cooking spotted owls.

Environmentalists say that campaign is an attempt to deflect attention from jobs lost to modernization. Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council argues, ``We're processing the same amount of timber but with 20 percent fewer workers. The real threat to employment is automation.'' Conservationists say they want the timber economy to prosper, but not at the expense of nature. Says Mr. Wood, ``In economic terms it makes little sense to run our remaining old growth through the saw. When it's gone, mills geared for it will have to close whether it's tomorrow or five years from now. To sustain the timber economy, we have to keep some old growth around. To diversify, we have to develop the land for other economic values: attracting new businesses, new residents, and tourists.''

In resource-dependent states like Oregon, land management is a political football, and old growth was a hot issue in the recent general election. Since more than half of Oregon's land is held by the federal government, the administration of the local resource base is also a matter of national attention and concern. At that level both environmentalists and fiscal conservatives complain that USFS and BLM favor and subsidize industrial interests at the expense of the rest of their national constituency.

Bunker Hill became news two years ago when area residents tried to keep BLM from logging 40 acres of the hill's old growth, including some trees 500 years old and 8 feet in diameter. BLM manages 2 million acres (4,000 square miles) of Oregon forest land in the Oregon and California Railroad (O&C) lands, a federal grant taken back from the railroad at the turn of the century. The Department of the Interior interprets the law governing that system as favoring timber over such uses as recreational and scenic. The agency's district office refuses to remove any of Bunker Hill's old growth from timber production. ``Bunker Hill,'' says BLM spokesman Don Smurthwaite, ``is a symbol of the pressures on land management agencies today. Industry and the preservationist ethic press us from opposite directions, yet we must also work within our management plan and the laws governing our operations. Resource issues have to be resolved at the national level and the resolutions applied to local areas like Bunker Hill, not vice versa.''

The state's powerful environmental movement is enlisting Congressional support to overturn what it perceives as BLM's overwhelming commodity bias. Jack Desmond of the Oregon Sierra Club says, ``Bunker Hill is an infinitesimal fraction of BLM's holdings. Their approach on the issue demonstrates how little commitment they have to protecting our natural resources. What they've accomplished is to turn a local issue into a national symbol of what's fundamentally wrong with public land management.''

Dennis Hawyward of the North West Timber Association argues, however, ``Bunker Hill isn't anything like that. It's just one of many small public tracts that a few people want to keep as a personal recreation area. At the same time, they don't offer any compromises to help maintain our timber economy.''

Old growth advocates disagree. Says Hal Hushbeck of the Bunker Hill Task Force, ``It may have started as a simple fight to preserve a beautiful spot a lot of local folks like to visit, but in the process we've learned what old growth means to everyone. Now there's a commitment on our part to work for all of Oregon's natural heritage.''

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