In Timber-Industry Conflict, It Is Still Jobs vs. Ecosystem

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Clinton administration's ongoing effort to solve the conflict over timber industry jobs and the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest comes at a time of great searching within federal land management agencies and the forestry profession.

There is a major shift away from industrial forestry and its focus on "getting out the cut" toward preserving ecosystems. This is evident in a new and controversial research effort by the Society of American Foresters, in the growing reform movement within the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and in the White House marching orders to government groups preparing reports to the president due next week.

The administration is not planning a public announcement June 1, the 60-day deadline President Clinton set at the April "forest conference" in Portland, Ore. Instead, according to White House sources, he will consider recommendations by three interagency groups before announcing later in the summer how he intends to proceed.

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Clinton will try to keep mills operating through what will be a difficult transition period. This is likely to include thinning national forests that do not include endangered species habitat, as well as salvage-logging east of the Cascade Mountains where infestation, disease, and drought have left trees dead or dying.

"We need a short-term solution to get some logs to the mill," says Mike Wiedeman, board chairman of an 81,000-member grassroots group called the Oregon Lands Coalition and owner of a small logging company. But even under the most industry-friendly options being considered by Clinton, the level of timber production will never reach the record levels of the 1980s. This means that more mills will shut down with ensuing economic and social disruption. The Forest Service says this year's timber harvest from 1 0 national forests in northern California is unlikely to exceed one-third the historical average.

While the administration wants to minimize the hardship on timber-dependent families and communities, it appears to be emphasizing science over economics in the search for solutions.

The "mission statement" presented to the scientists and policymakers designing proposals for Clinton, includes the charge to "take an ecosystem approach to forest management and [to] particularly address maintenance and restoration of biological diversity, particularly that of the late-successional and old-growth forest ecosystems." When considering endangered wildlife, the scientists were ordered to "include alternatives that range from a medium to a very high probability of insuring the viability of sp ecies."

Such policy directions please environmentalists, who are particularly interested in the computer mapping of resources underway by government scientists. "They're pulling together data in a more comprehensive way than has ever been achieved," says Julie Norman, president of Headwaters, an environmental group. Clinton administration signals since the forest conference are less encouraging to many in the timber industry.

"Our hope and expectation is that the president will stand by his words to find a balanced solution," says Christopher West, vice president of the Northwest Forestry Association. "Based on what we've heard, though, it seems to be the same small group of scientists imposing their view of the world and that's got us disturbed."

As a group, foresters are formally-trained and professionally-inclined to view trees as a crop. For at least three decades professional foresters have advocated "sustained-yield management," which emphasizes timber production. But a task force appointed by the 18,000-member Society of American Foresters recently called for what it termed "quantum changes" to preserve "long-term conservation of environmental quality and ecosystem health."

After more than a year of study, the foresters group urged a shift from sustained-yield to "ecosystem management," which it defines as focusing on "the condition of the forest, with goals of maintaining soil productivity, gene conservation, biodiversity, landscape patterns, and the array of ecological processes."

Within the government agencies managing federal forests, a similar shift in philosophy is occuring. Its most outspoken advocates are found in a group called the "Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics," which numbers several thousand members.

The group was highly critical of the Reagan and Bush administrations, which were accused of emphasizing resource extraction over conservation. But this reform effort has been welcomed by administration officials. "Their participation is a good thing," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in a recent interview. "We all want the same thing, which is professional management and good science."

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