A canopy of fir boughs screens out most of the rain, shielding a group of environmentalists winding their way up a trail in the Cascade Mountains. Occasionally, the hikers pause to point out moss-covered logs, dead snags, or giant 200-year-old trees - salient characteristics of a so-called ``old growth'' forest. The forest, however, cannot muffle the distant roar of heavy machinery. Less than a half-mile away, a logging crew is hard at work loading felled timber onto flatbed trucks, destined for a nearby shingle mill. From the industry perspective, the most valuable softwood in the United States comes from these remaining old-growth stands of the Pacific Northwest.
Environmentalists and the timber industry have long been at loggerheads over the future of America's forests. But in this region the dispute has become a Bunyan-size battle, embroiling the US Forest Service, the courts, and an obscure little creature called the northern spotted owl.
From northern California to the Canadian border, this region of the US was once blanketed in coniferous forest. Since the coming of white man, however, about 90 percent of that original forestland has disappeared - making way for farming, the forces of urbanization, and the timber industry.
Now, most of the remaining old growth is found on public land, primarily administered by the US Forest Service. The conflict is over how this resource should be managed. Should more acreage of old growth be preserved for the spotted owl and other wildlife, as environmental groups are urging? Or should more of this valuable resource be cut and sold on the market?
The Forest Service currently is preparing management plans for each of America's national forests to address such questions. Predictably, neither environmentalists nor the timber industry say they are satisfied with draft plans submitted so far for national forests in this region.
From his vantage point here in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Charlie Raines looks across a ravine to the opposite slope and shakes his head sadly. ``Moth-eaten,'' says the Sierra Club's regional vice-president, describing the patchwork effect left on the mountainside from clear-cuts of earlier timber sales.
About half the slope is still covered with old growth, but it is becoming ``so fragmented'' that Mr. Raines wonders how much longer this area will be able to support the sorts of wildlife found almost exclusively in old-growth forests. Environmentalists, using the Forest Service's own calculations, predict harvestable old growth on Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, typical of other national forests in the region, will be gone in 50 years.
The forest, however, is in the eye of the beholder.
The same mountain slope that roused Raines's ire is considered by some foresters to be an example of good forest management. Younger forests, each with trees of uniform age and size, are growing up to replace the old growth. In 50 years, when the available supply of old growth dwindles, the first of the second-growth forests will be ready for harvest. In this way, the national forests are managed on a sustainable-yield basis, ensuring that America will never ``run out'' of forests, industry representatives say.
They also say old growth will never disappear from the Pacific Northwest. Of the 7.7 million acres of old growth on the west side of the Cascades, 2.8 million acres are permanently off-limits to logging, locked up in national parks or wilderness areas, says James C. Geisinger, president of the Northwest Forestry Association.
That figure could rise to 3.4 million acres, if the Forest Service decides to set aside special habitat areas for the spotted owl.
``Environmentalists say it's just another 4 or 5 percent [of national forest land],'' Mr. Geisinger says. ``But we've been 1 percented, 2 percented, and 3 percented to death in this region. Not to mention that the draft Forest Service management plans for this region are proposing about a 20 percent reduction in timber sales.''
For now, both sides have dug in their heels over the northern spotted owl. The Forest Service has proposed that 550 pairs of spotted owls should have a habitat area of 1,000 acres each.
Environmentalists say that's not enough. ``It's precisely because of the poor timber-management practices on private lands that we think it's so important for public lands to be managed for elk, deer, owls, and the watershed,'' says Jean Durning, regional director of the Wilderness Society.
The timber industry, on the other hand, says it's too much. Geisinger says the spotted owl is the latest ploy by environmentalists to drive timber operators out of business. ``If it weren't the spotted owl, it would be something else.''