VOTERS in the Northwest, long perceived as a stronghold of "the greens," will decide this fall whether it is fair for environmentalists to use the Endangered Species Act to cut back multiple use of the public lands that cover most of the West. The battleground will be Senate races in which Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon and Sen. Brock Adams (D) of Washington, on opposite sides of the issue, face tough reelection fights.
GOP strategists hope to use voter concern over the economic consequences of endangered species listings to bust up the Democrats' liberal-labor coalition in the Northwest and replace it with a new Republican labor-business-farmer coalition in those states.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) expires this year and there's talk of putting off the reauthorization until next year to avoid rough floor fights on such a politically sensitive issue in an election year. Environmentalists say the ESA should be strengthened; critics want more accounting for economic fallout.
The White House has been silent, but Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. has called for changes in the ESA to soften the economic consequences. Secretary Lujan's mandate from Bush is a "balanced" approach.
The spotted owl triggered the fight. It lives in the "old growth" forests of the Northwest. Cutbacks on timber harvests on public lands were ordered to protect the owl. Critics claim this turned tens of thousands of loggers and mill workers, their families, and the isolated rural communities in which they live into the real "endangered species."
While the spotlight is on the spotted owl, the real goal of the environmentalists is to end logging on 2 million acres of ancient Northwest forests. The owls were picked from a list of 75 species. "There's no question they're using the owl for a much broader agenda," says Chris Hansen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Environmentalists don't apologize for this strategy. The ESA, says Sharon Newsome of the National Wildlife Federation, "allowed us to understand and identify that we have an ecosystem that's on the brink of disappearing and it's not just the spotted owl. It's the yew tree. It's the salmon. All these things are dependent on the same ecosystem."
Two species of salmon have been listed as endangered in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Remedial action could hurt many users - barge operators, farmers who irrigate apple and cherry orchards, and riverside aluminum plants that need cheap power.
THE remedial plan of the Northwest Power Planning Commission was modified after it drew loud protests. "The reaction has been pretty good since the plan was amended," says NPPC spokesman John Harrison. But NPPC may not have the last word.
The ESA listings also caused an uproar in labor circles. GOP strategists see an opportunity to isolate Democrats as a party of radical, urban environmentalists.
Polls show a majority in the Northwest want to save owls, trees - and the jobs (and taxes) of loggers and mill workers. Forced to choose, they picked jobs by a 57-31 margin in a 1991 poll taken by Market Strategies, Inc. for a group with ties to Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington. But salmon win over jobs in that poll.
Senators Gorton and Packwood push a plan backed by management and labor that sets aside an "old growth preserve" but guarantees timber to cut.
Packwood's reelection could depend on whether his opponent is Rep. Les AuCoin (D), a moderate on the spotted owl issue; or Harry Lonsdale, described by Carpenters Union leader Mike Draper as "a real tree hugger. I can't think of anyone in Oregon who would be as bad as Lonsdale." Rep. AuCoin, who is co-sponsoring compromise legislation, would keep the support of a lot of labor leaders, but Mr. Draper warns that loggers and mill workers will back "whoever will be for them." Packwood, Draper says, will be i n a position to tell them what they want to hear without alienating his base, but AuCoin will feel a tug from the environmentalists.
The situation is clearer in Washington. Though long a friend of labor, its leaders perceive Sen. Adams as moving toward the environmentalists on the spotted owl issue. Denny Scott of the Carpenters Union sees it as heading off a primary challenge from former US Rep. Mike Lowry (D). "It's caused a huge complication for organized labor," Mr. Scott says. "The idea is not to deny an endorsement but to explain how he's diluting what would be strong labor support. It's passionately felt. It's a dilemma we face
in organized labor." US Rep. Road Chandler (R), the prospective GOP nominee, is apt to follow Gorton's lead.
The spotted owl controversy had deepened the split between urban centers like Seattle and Portland and rural counties. "It pits working families in rural areas against an urban elite," says Mike McGavick, the GOP strategist credited by some with devising the Gorton-Packwood strategy. "The rural people are losing the fight and there's a lot of alienation in that community." In the end, Mr. McGavick argues, "it will cause a real schism in the Democratic Party."
Although environmental leaders like Ms. Newsome know this is a problem, they argue that the timber industry has little future because, at current harvest rates, the trees will be gone in 10 or 20 years. Now, she argues, is the time to find new jobs for timber workers. Newsome admits her argument is a hard sell in tough economic times.