THE conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest contain the largest stands of temperate, old-growth rain forest south of Alaska. These stands are being liquidated faster than the tropical rain forests of South America. At least 85 percent of the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests have been eliminated, compared to 40 percent of the world's tropical rain forests and 15 percent of the Amazon's. Some argue that protecting these forests and the animals that inhabit them will come at the expense of mill employment. But both old-growth rain forest and forestry jobs can be protected if Congress, the US Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) take the right steps.
Compared with the Amazon rain forest, the Northwest conifer forests contain double the biomass, or plant and animal weight per acre. These forest ecosystems also support species of birds, amphibians, flowering plants, and mushrooms found no where else in the world.
Biologists have identified 64 vertebrate species that are associated with the mature forests of western Oregon and Washington. The marten and fisher, predators from the weasel family, are disappearing as these ancient forests on which they depend are fragmented and destroyed.
The northern flying squirrel, primary food source for the endangered northern spotted owl, feeds on the lichen and fungi that grow on old-growth trees. Some 5,000 remaining spotted owls are found only in the conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Less than 2 million acres of old-growth forest remain of the nearly 20 million acres that blanketed Oregon prior to European settlement. The situation is similar in Washington. The disappearance of these forests is being aided by the Forest Service and the BLM, which are pursuing a policy of selling off as much of the old growth as possible. If this practice continues, these ancient ecosystems will be eliminated or hopelessly fragmented in as little as five years.
Among the proponents of these policies are the region's mill workers, who mistakenly blame court injunctions protecting the old-growth stands for the closure of lumber mills. Court-ordered protections, however, are only a minor factor in the Northwest's declining mill employment.
The primary reason is that one in every four logs cut in the Northwest is shipped overseas. Most are purchased in Japan, Korea, and other Asian nations that are willing to spend twice what domestic mills will pay for unprocessed logs. Consequently, the largest United States timber companies are posting record profits by exporting raw logs - and thousands of mill jobs.
The gradual modernization of Northwest timber companies, which must now compete with state-of-the-art mills in Canada and the southeastern US, is another major cause of rising unemployment among mill workers. Modernized mills employ about half the former labor force. The older mills, equipped to cut only mature logs, will be forced to retool or close down in the next few years. Mill jobs will be lost regardless of whether conifer forests are cut or preserved for their wilderness value.
Yet the Forest Service and the BLM still view their primary organizational goal as providing the maximum number of timber jobs possible. And while long-range management plans are currently being finalized for many districts in the Northwest, it is likely their forest plans will call for cutting the majority of the old-growth in the next decade.
A congressional directive extending National Park protection to significant stands of old-growth, temperate rain forests in the Pacific Northwest is desperately needed to preserve these rare and ancient ecosystems. The protection of rain forests and biological diversity is already accepted worldwide as a primary environmental goal, and Congress can make an important statement to the American people and to industrializing nations by protecting these environmental resources.
At the same time, Congress can soften the transition the timber industry is undergoing by investing in retraining programs for displaced mill workers.
When Congress holds oversight hearings on the management of the Pacific Northwest forests, the American people must demand protection for this priceless and irreplaceable ecological treasure.