Bush Trade: Redwoods for Votes

LOUDLY announcing his concern for workers' welfare, George Bush is pushing steadily forward with efforts to open up the last remaining stands of virgin Pacific forest to logging.

In the name of preserving jobs, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan is preparing legislation to waive the provisions of the Endangered Species Act that protect the Northwest's dwindling ancient forest from further destruction. The act now requires the federal government to try to increase the population of the nearly extinct northern spotted owl by preserving its habitat. The proposed legislation would allow the owl population to remain at its precarious current level, thus sanctioning further cutting of old

growth trees.

It's touching, if uncharacteristic, to see so many steely-eyed Republicans shedding crocodile tears over workers' rights in the Pacific Northwest. It was only recently that President Bush fought the extension of unemployment benefits. Where, one wonders, were these champions of labor when General Motors put thousands of its employees in Flint, Mich., out of work in search of cheaper labor overseas? Where were they when the textile mills closed in Lowell, Mass., to take advantage of a nonunionized labor f orce in the South?

The answer - nowhere to be seen. This suggests a further question: Where would the Bush administration be if the timber companies shut down operations in the Pacific Northwest tomorrow because it was no longer profitable to log there? The answer would be the same. One must conclude that the administration's real concern is with the preservation not of jobs but of capital, though in an election year, the wise politician appears solicitous of both.

But if we accept occasional job loss as the price of economic efficiency, why is it unacceptable to protect an irreplaceable and valuable ecosystem at the cost of jobs? The advice society gives to a worker when a factory closes is no less applicable when a natural resource is preserved: Retrain thyself!

The loggers do themselves a disservice by claiming that they can cut trees or nothing. Human beings can adapt to changing circumstances. The ancient forests are not so flexible; once we've cut them down, we will never get them back. If the government is really so concerned with the loggers' welfare, it could fund conservation corps to employ displaced loggers, and encourage labor-intensive environmentally benign industries in the region such as alternative energy and small-scale agriculture.

The Bush administration's campaign to sell old growth federal forests exemplifies its predilection for short-term gains that result in long-term loss. Opening the forests to logging will provide perhaps another five years of employment.

Once the trees are gone, the loggers will again be without jobs. But their economic future, as well as that of the region at large, will have worsened. With the loss of the forests goes the tourist industry, which could employ some of the loggers, and which provides an endlessly renewing source of revenue, unlike cutting down virgin trees.

LIKEWISE, Bush's energy policy favors short-term gain at long-term cost. The policy's centerpiece is the campaign to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, our last pristine wilderness area, to exploratory oil drilling.

The Refuge contains at most six months worth of oil, an amount that could be obtained by increasing automobile fuel efficiency standards. But the administration opposes increased efficiency standards and has already succeeded in deleting such a requirement from the Senate energy bill.

The primeval forests are a place of incomparable mystery and majesty. The quiet of centuries lies in their groves. But the ancient stands of fir and spruce provide not just solace but life. Their value as a few thousand Jacuzzis and pool decks pales in comparison to their potential value as the source of new drugs, such as the recently developed substances derived from the bark of the yew, used to fight cancer.

The United States argues for the protection of the third-world's natural resources out of concern in part for the loss of biological diversity. Our position in such critical international negotiations would be justly greeted with derision if we fail to preserve our own valuable forests.

By fighting to log the last great stands of old growth forests, the "environmental president" may garner votes this summer and fall in the Pacific Northwest, but he will have stolen from future generations a national treasure that contains not just America's natural history but hope for its future as well.

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