SALEM, OREGON — UNTIL recently, warriors in the political fights over preserving natural resources were divided into business interests and environmental activists. Sophisticated lobbyists in the media, state houses, and halls of Congress dueled over issues like the northern spotted owl and old-growth forests. That's changing as communities whose livelihood depends on extracting natural resources take up the fax machine and cellular phone to rally behind the people who work in the forests and mills and mines, on the ranches and fishing boats to produce what the rest of the country consumes.
Valerie Johnson, head of the Oregon Lands Coalition, typifies this new grass-roots activism. A fifth-generation Oregonian whose family homesteaded and ran a stagecoach outpost in the 1850s, she oversees an umbrella organization representing some two dozen groups with a membership totaling over 35,000.
Just as environmentalists are working to alert the entire nation to the issues surrounding the Pacific Northwest forests, Ms. Johnson is trying to convince those outside the region that families and communities here are just as much at stake as endangered species. Her organization's motto is ``Putting People Back Into the Environmental Equation.''
``We're fighting elitists who don't want to take responsibility for the social consequences,'' she says in her typically hard-hitting fashion. ``Our people live in the areas we're talking about.''
While logging sites and lumber mills are still mainly a man's world, many of the political activists representing wage earners, families, and communities at the grass roots are women. Some are the wives of timber men. Some, like Johnson (who worked in lumber sales for 13 years), have been in the business themselves. Some have businesses in timber towns.
One outspoken Oregon Lands Coalition board member is Evelyn Badger, who owns the Sears catalog store in Canyonville (est. pop. 1,300). Mrs. Badger is actively supporting the ``Community Stability Act,'' a congressional proposal requiring that economic and social factors be considered in managing national forests and other public lands. ``We're going to have to find a middle-of-the-road solution,'' she says.
``If you shut off the resources, you push these people into the urban areas to scratch for minimum wage jobs,'' says Jackie Lang, the coalition's energetic and only paid staff member. ``Diversification is just not an option for a lot of these towns. If you shut down the forest, you shut down the town.''
At a time when only one in 10 congressional districts is still considered agrarian, Johnson stresses the importance of preserving resource-based economies in the United States. ``The `information' industry creates no new dollars,'' she says. ``It cannot exist without base industries operating somewhere - either here, domestically, where we have control and regulations, or some other country with few or no regulations.''
The spotted owl story is far from over, but the Oregon Lands Coalition message does seem to be getting through back in Washington. A recent delegation from timber towns got a long and respectful hearing at the White House.
``I think we've started to build some bridges with people who matter,'' Johnson says. ``Now it's a matter of moving from understanding to action.''