YEARS ago, my first job away from home was in a pulp mill in the tiny town of Toledo, Ore. I learned two things from that summer of smelly, hard work a long way away from my liberal arts college.
First, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life working in pulp mills. And second, people who work in natural resource industries - in the woods and in the mills in rural communities - hold the same values, have the same hopes and fears as those who get to work by sedan or subway instead of pickup truck.
I thought about that recently as I spent a weekend observing environmental activists strategizing over legislation and lawsuits to protect endangered species and wildlife habitat. And it became clear that unless environmentalists give greater consideration to the communities impacted by preservation measures, they - the environmentalists - could lose politically.
The controversy over the spotted owl here in the Northwest is just the first of what no doubt will be a series of struggles pitting environment against economics. Lots of numbers are flying around, but it's safe to say that thousands of jobs are at stake. It's also safe to say that federal agencies and the lawmakers who influence policy have added to the problem by ignoring the impact of improper forest management. It took a federal judge (appointed by Ronald Reagan) to make that official.
The response of most environmentalists has followed two lines: That most of the decline in jobs thus far has been due to automation and exports. And that jobs would inevitably dwindle because the region is running out of old-growth forests.
There are elements of truth in those assertions. The timber industry saw a 40 percent increase in productivity during the 1980s, and the proposed designation of critical habitat for the spotted owl in California, Oregon, and Washington State equals less than 5 percent of log exports.
But that kind of chart-and-graph analysis is not enough, and it reveals a heartlessness that most people don't buy. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last summer showed that while 80 percent of Americans call themselves environmentalists, by a wide margin (51 to 34 percent) they "think the need to protect jobs in the Northwest is more important than the need to protect the endangered spotted owl." Thus, there could be a political backlash against environmental extremism, particularly now that legislati on is moving from the protective cover of sponsors and subcommittees (where environmental activists have more control) to the wider legislative arena.
Just as some political conservatives now see the fruitlessness of stonewalling environmental protection measures, some environmentalists are speaking out on behalf of workers worried about losing their jobs. For a few, this new-found concern is more calculating than altruistic.
But others really do appreciate the frightening position many woods workers and millhands now find themselves in. "We must be compassionate," said Michael Jackson of the Friends of Plumas Wilderness in California. "These loggers I live with are not bad people."
"Quite honestly, these people are really scared," said David West, who was a union man himself for 16 years. "They've worked in the woods for many generations, and their families depend on that. These people need our help. We really need to find ways to reach out."
The congressional hero of environmental activists is Rep. Jim Jontz (D) of Indiana, sponsor of the strictest forest-preservation proposal. He talks about shifting US Forest Service log road-building money to environmental restoration, but his "Ancient Forest Protection Act" says nothing about protecting logging communities and workers from economic distress and social disruption.
During the meeting in southern Oregon, Jontz declined to meet with timber workers gathered outside in protest. While that encounter might have been unpleasant (as unpleasant as walking through a clearcut for the first time), it would have put a human face on the issue.
For as workingman-environmentalist David West said, "Part of protecting the planet is protecting one another."