Time to Cut to Heart Of a US Timber Issue

THE simultaneous visits of George Bush and Bill Clinton to Oregon this week were designed to win votes in the timber-rich Pacific Northwest.

Both had something specific to offer: Bush, a fast-track decision to log federal land where trees are dead or dying; Clinton, a post-inaugural "summit" of interested parties to solve once and for all the problem known simplistically as "jobs versus the spotted owl."

Those are both good ideas. Salvage logging will sustain jobs for a while and cut the risk of forest fires. And a "timber summit" - with the kind of top-level political leadership so far lacking - could be just the thing needed to protect both jobs and owls.

But these are also easy giveaways - a minor demonstration of an incumbent's power by Bush and a no-risk promise by his rival. To really tackle one of the toughest environmental issues the United States faces (and the spotted owl is relatively simple compared with other resource-management problems just around the corner) will involve much harder decisions.

An example is ending the below-cost sale of timber on federal land, a form of subsidy that not only results in artificial prices but also encourages environmentally damaging activity. It happens because Uncle Sam spends millions each year for the survey and construction of logging roads on United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land (which now total nearly 350,000 miles, or more than six times the federal interstate system) but doesn't charge the timber companies full freight.

Congressman Jim Jontz figures this costs the American taxpayer as much as $500 million a year, or more than $5.3 billion since 1975. "In the private sector, no business would continue to operate with losses on such a wide scale," says the Indiana Democrat. Of the 120 national forests, says Jontz, 98 are money losers. (The Forest Service acknowledges that 69 of its forests operate at a loss.) Jontz wants to cut the Interior Department's timber sales budget by $16 million for the coming fiscal year as a fi rst step toward eliminating the subsidy. In this, he has the support of the 200,000-member National Taxpayers Union as well as environmental groups.

"Taxpayers can no longer afford to shoulder this costly giveaway," Jill Lancelot, congressional affairs director of the National Taxpayers Union, wrote to Jontz this summer. "In addition to their direct, adverse impact upon the taxpayers, National Forest system timber subsidies have massively distorted the market."

John Baden of the University of Washington (who has been a logger as well as a professor of forestry) writes in Forbes magazine: "The way the forests are managed, there is no true cost accounting.... The incentive, clearly, is to cut."

To do away with this harmful subsidy would require political courage by a president. So, too, would leadership to change another practice harmful to both the forest environment and timber industry jobs. This is the export of unmilled and minimally processed logs. Limiting such exports (which amount to more than half of all trees cut down in the Northwest) might cut into short-term industry profits. But it also would save American jobs - as many as 15,000 jobs, according to one university study - and help

sustain the resource on which those jobs and the families they support are based.

Whoever is president after next January also would do well to listen closely to the professionals whose job it is to oversee hundreds of millions of acres in federal forest land spread over 43 states. Earlier this summer, the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics surveyed more than 5,000 agency employees. The association found that 80 percent of the respondents believe the Forest Service "needs more efforts in sustainable land practices." Seventy percent advocate protection of old-growth timber.

"This survey proves the vast majority of Forest Service employees want to do the right thing for the environment," said Jeff DeBonis, the former agency employee who started the 11,500-member gadfly organization of forestry professionals. "The Forest Service needs to listen to its employees to find a new direction."

So does the next president, Clinton or Bush.

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