An Endangered Human Species

AS you hold in your hands a worthwhile product made from trees, ask yourself this: In an age of environmental awareness and concern over the preservation of species, is there a place for people whose livelihoods - and maybe lives - depend on gathering the natural resources we all use? It is an increasingly relevant question, involving not just regional economies but the social fabric of hundreds of communities.

This is the major subplot behind the drama over protecting habitat for the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. But it is just as true for many areas where grazing, mining, fishing, and other resource-based activities - all under attack by environmentalists - have been the heart and soul of family and community life for generations.

Things are coming to a head now over the spotted owl. Four separate federal lawsuits are tying up timber sales on federal lands. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has just recommended that 11.6 million acres (territory larger than Massachusetts and Vermont combined) be designated critical owl habitat. That's 4 million acres more than was recommended by a government panel of scientists last year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that more sawmills were closed in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho last year than during any previous 12-month period - nearly twice as many as during the regional recession of 1980 to '82. The region as a whole continues to enjoy good economic health, but about 8,500 mill workers were laid off at some point last year. Estimates of job losses due to the owl listing range from 48,000 up to 100,000. In towns like Sweet Home, Mill City, Roseburg, and Coos Bay, these are more th an economic statistics. They are sleepless nights and tightened belts and lost opportunities. They are worry over house payments, doctor bills, and groceries.

There is no doubt that industry leaders and their friends in government were less than farsighted when they pushed for timber cuts that could not be sustained by healthy forests. They blame environmentalists, but automation and overseas exports of raw logs to boost profits have cost US mill jobs too. It's also true that species need to be protected as the world begins to learn the importance of that new word, ``biodiversity.'' But now that government agencies are beginning to practice better resource ma nagement, should individuals and communities bear the brunt of a change in national policy? Should those who work on the land themselves become endangered?

President Bush keeps saying he wants ``balance'' between resource conservation and worker protection, but his actions indicate something else. His administration opposes any special aid for loggers and millworkers affected by the listing of the spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Granted, that could open a costly can of worms as everyone impacted by the Clean Air Act, the new trade deal with Mexico, and many other laws or policy decisions suddenly sticks a hand out.

But rural, resource-based communities are a special case. They quite literally depend on a single industry. They need help adjusting, and they need some promise of stability as fathers and mothers learn new trades, as children prepare for a different kind of life. Such people, says professor Robert Lee of the University of Washington, are ``distinguished by an unusual commitment to individualism, hard work, inventiveness, and entrepreneurial spirit.'' Shouldn't those qualities be nurtured as a matter of national policy?

If not, warns a report by university researchers from California, Oregon, and Washington, ``the psychological and social trauma experienced by these individuals will result in increased substance abuse, family problems, and divorce and suicide rates.

``These social impacts would compound the economic difficulties and make it harder for communities to pursue the few economic options ... that are actually open to them,'' the report states. ``At the same time that social needs are burgeoning, the funding sources for local agencies and schools may be declining.''

Most of us never think about where our food and fiber and minerals come from. But as natural resource questions increasingly move from the regional to the national political stage, the people who provide those resources should not be forgotten.

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