DRIVE through the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon any December weekend, and it's hard to find a car without a nice, fat Douglas fir tied to its roof. Many folks shun the $20 Christmas trees and instead get a $2 permit to cut their own on federal land. Such is the abundance in the Pacific Northwest that one gets the impression trees are here for the taking.
But the image is deceptive. The timber industry that sustains much of this region is being buffeted economically, environmentally, and politically in ways that have made it an international issue. While trees are a ``renewable resource,'' - and more are being planted than cut down across much of the Northwest - there are likely to be fewer available for the foreseeable future.
This despite a federal judge's ruling last week allowing a resumption of logging on vast tracts of disputed federal land. Thousands of jobs are at stake, and declining output could affect trade with countries like Japan.
The controversy focuses on the northern spotted owl, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing as a threatened species. The owl is found mostly in ``old growth'' timber, trees that can date back to the founding of the republic. In these covered stands of giant conifers, the owl finds the food it needs without itself becoming prey, and it reproduces. But the owl nests in other areas as well. The question for dueling biologists and statisticians is: Should old-growth logging be curtailed in favor of the critters?
Most of these areas belong to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management - which means the land, trees, and animals belong as much to Georgians and New Yorkers as to the Boise Cascade loggers who work there or Sierra Club members trying to preserve them. That has been true for almost a century. But only since Congress passed environmental and land-use laws in the 1960s and '70s has it become a truly national issue.
``Our national forests belong to the many,'' Wyche Fowler (D) of Georgia argued on the floor of the US Senate recently. ``They are not the private tree farms of the few.''
To Mike Burrill, who owns a small lumber company in White City, Ore., and had to lay off 45 of 200 employees in October, such talk has grave implications.
``The issue is not just timber, but mining and ranching and oil,'' Mr. Burrill told a meeting of those parties at Southern Oregon State College. David Atkin, professor of environmental law at the University of Oregon, notes ``a breakdown of regional control. ...''
At the urging of Northwest lawmakers, Congress passed a law earlier this year releasing 1.1 billion board-feet of national forest timber from an injunction that had blocked logging in most old-growth forests west of the Cascades. The compromise also ordered the Forest Service to come up with a new plan for protecting the spotted owl. This is the one-year arrangement upheld by US District Judge Helen Frye in Portland last week. It helps get the Northwest through the current fiscal year, but also highlights critical problems to be resolved.
Just to maintain a sustained timber harvest, University of Oregon researchers reported recently, the state must reduce its annual timber cut 5 to 10 percent immediately, eliminating 6,100 jobs during the next five years (plus 8,300 secondary jobs) for a total payroll loss of $600 million.
Legislation introduced by Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon would ban exports of raw timber from federal lands, prohibit substitution of public timber for private timber sold on export markets, and let states regulate timber sales from state-owned land.
While some in the Bush administration argue for free trade, Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt says ``this is not an international trade issue.''
``It is simply a matter of deciding how pubic forest resources ought to be managed in the public interest,'' Governor Goldschmidt told Congress in November. ``If you planted trees for the future of your state, how would you feel seeing those logs being shipped out unprocessed to the Far East?''
This is especially true, others point out, because the country continues to import wood products. The US now imports 28 to 30 percent of its wood fiber, mostly from Canada, says Forest Service ranger Mary Smelcer.
In this largely rural and very friendly area there have been new threats of tree-spiking by environmental extremists, which can be deadly to loggers. And at least two spotted owls have been killed.
Various agencies and groups are working on plans to help the Northwest cope with economic and environmental change. There is general agreement on the need for balance between conservation and employment. The hard part is finding balance.
``This controversy is not about spotted owls. It is not about allowable cuts,'' says Ronald Lamb, a professor of biology and ecology at Southern Oregon State College. ``It's about values.''