THE rugged hills of western Arkansas, home to the state's powerful timber industry, are an environmental battleground where experience has taught Bill Clinton to tread carefully. In the governor's first term, "corporate criminals" was the label some of his staffers applied to Big Timber in hearings over the industry's clear-cutting practices. Governor Clinton found out that business interests could fight back when he was bounced out of office for a term in 1980.
His mistake was to put "good policy over good politics," wrote David Osborne, a Clinton admirer and campaign advisor, in "Laboratories of Democracy." After regaining office, Clinton became a "pragmatic progressive," ducking battles that would alienate the powerful, Mr. Osborne wrote.
So while Clinton focused on jobs and education, he appointed industry-friendly regulators to the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. Environmentalists dubbed the board the "Pollution Permission Commission."
Meanwhile, the timber battle continued. A 1976 federal law required the United States Forest Service to produce a management plan for each national forest. Nine years later the Forest Service finally revealed a draft plan for Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas - the largest and oldest national forest in the South. The plan relied heavily on clear-cutting.
"It caused an uproar," says Jerry Williams, an environmentalist with the Ouachita Watch League (OWL). "People finally saw that Smokey the Bear had a chain saw in one hand and a herbicide dispenser in the other," Mr. Williams says.
Driving down backroads in the Ouachita National Forest, where some 300,000 of the 1.6 million acres have already been logged, Williams points to hillsides stripped of their natural mix of hardwoods and pines. On older cuts, a seedling pine monoculture has taken hold. Williams explains that the timber industry prefers pines because they mature faster than hardwoods, and "pine plantations" are easier to harvest than mixed forest. OWL members want the timber companies to harvest trees selectively - a costl ier process but one that leaves the forest intact and in balance, Williams says. The Forest Service has amended its management plan somewhat, but not enough for the OWL, which is suing to halt clear-cutting in the Ouachita. Clinton, mindful of timber jobs and school revenues, has endorsed the amended Ouachita plan. However, Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant has intervened in the lawsuit on the side of OWL - a sign that in "the Natural State" public opinion is turning against the environmental-degrada tion-for-jobs trade-off.
Clinton has begun to shift as well. He pushed an initiative through the 1991 legislature that will make polluters forfeit profits from environmental violations. The action earned him a "Best Bet" environmental award from the nonpartisan Center for Policy Alternatives.