FROM sea to shining sea, a nationalization of western environmental issues is invigorating conservation groups, putting corporations on the defensive, and causing a revolt in the natural resource agencies now emerging from the Ronald Reagan-James Watt era. More and more Americans living east of the Rockies are realizing that federally owned and managed forests, deserts, and grasslands belong just as much to them as they do to ranchers, loggers, and miners. And by a 2-to-1 margin (according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll), they favor ``protecting the environment, even if it means that some people will lose their jobs and the government will have to spend a great deal of money.''
At the same time, the US demographic shift to the west is working in the favor of environmentalists: Most emigrants move to cities rather than rural areas, and most want to preserve for recreational purposes as much of the naturally beautiful areas as possible. Recent transplants are often those working hardest to save ``open space'' and other natural amenities, and this inevitably changes political dynamics in the region.
``The people of Cincinnati own the Willamette National Forest just as much as the people of Sweet Home, Ore.,'' says Lou Gold, a transplanted Chicagoan fighting to save Bald Mountain in the Siskiyous of southern Oregon. He has taken his captivating slide show and environmental talk to 100-plus audiences around the US each year.
This puts regional politicians like Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon on the defensive. The Senate veteran is under attack on environmental issues from challenger Harry Lonsdale. Mr. Lonsdale moved up from California in the 1970s to start his own high-tech firm and now chairs the Native Forest Council.
Increasingly, it is lawmakers like Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) of Georgia (chairman of the conservation and forestry subcommittee) and Rep. Bruce Vento (D) of Minnesota (chairman of the national parks and public lands subcommittee) who are leading efforts to preserve old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. And increasingly, consumers and investors around the country are putting their money behind the ``Valdez Principles'' and ``Green Seal'' program, which are said to back ``environmentally sound'' corporations and products.
This does not mean overnight changes in what critics see as the enthusiasm of the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for extracting natural resources at the expense of wildlife habitat. John Bonine, a University of Oregon law professor and codirector of the Western Natural Resources Law Clinic, points out that ``95 percent of the environmental lawyers in the US work for corporations.''
Still, there is a new energy behind efforts to restrict export of logs and other raw wood to Japan, for example. Such efforts include vigorously upholding federal resource management laws passed in the 1970s that mandate ``multiple use,'' which includes conservation and archaeological preservation as well as cutting trees and mining minerals. Such efforts produce derisive references to ``preservationists,'' often portrayed as Eastern elitists unconcerned about lost jobs.
But debate continues over whether more sawmill jobs are lost to timber exports (25 percent of trees harvested in the Northwest) and to modern equipment - or to environmental concerns like the controversial northern spotted owl. And more people are asking questions, such as, why ranchers pay as little as $1.81 a month per cow to graze their cattle on US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land when beef prices are rising in New York.
``You can't feed your pet gerbil for $1.81 a month,'' scoffs Roy Elicker, a lawyer (originally from New Jersey) for the National Wildlife Federation's Pacific Northwest Natural Resources Center. Within the timber industry itself there is disagreement over issues tied, at least indirectly, to the environment. Big companies like Weyerhaeuser are fighting a proposed log export ban, while smaller firms favor it.
In the long run, growing dissension in the ranks of federal land managers may be even more important to the political broadening of Western environmental issues. In an open letter to Forest Service chief F.Dale Robertson, the forest supervisors of the northern region recently warned of ``troubling times.''
``We are not meeting the quality land management expectations of our public and our employees,'' they wrote. ``We are not being viewed as the `conservation leaders' Gifford Pinchot [the legendary first Forest Service chief] would have had us become.... We have become a dysfunctional Forest Service family.'' Even more blunt internal memos have called the Forest Service ``out of control.''
Last summer, Jeff DeBonis, an 11-year Forest Service veteran, formed the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Its members now number 3,000 - half are agency employees and most of the rest are associated with state and federal resource management agencies (see attached article).
Other mavericks are speaking out as well. Tom Kovalicky, supervisor of the 2.2 million-acre Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, did so well managing his area that the Idaho Wildlife Federation named him 1989 conservationist of the year. This did not please the timber industry, and conservative Idaho Sens. Steve Symms and James McClure (both Republicans) tried to get the 27-year veteran axed. But Mr. Kovalicky survived the heat.
``There's a revolution going on in the Forest Service,'' he told a recent gathering of activists in Eugene, Ore. ``Are there other people like me waiting to surface? I say yes, and any day now.'' Such talk is music to the ears of environmentalists.