FOR the past two Februaries, hundreds of environmental activists from up and down the West Coast have been gathering in southern Oregon - home of the northern spotted owl and one of the most biologically diverse spots on the continent - for a weekend of strategizing about how to save the "ancient forests." The mood generally is like a pre-game pep rally, designed to fire up the eco-warriors before they head back home to do political battle with the timber industry and its friends in Congress and the fede ral resource agencies.
It has not been an occasion where a logger or millworker would feel welcome. Last year, a handful of timber workers and their families stood around outside with protest signs, but they were not invited into the old armory where the meeting was being held, nor was there much effort by the activists and their leaders to engage them in constructive dialogue. The attitude was pretty much, "We're fighting for the endangered species and ecosystems; somebody else can worry about those whose jobs may be threaten ed."
But what a difference a year - and a presidential election - can make. This past weekend, environmental leaders invited spokespersons for timber towns and unions to take part in the conference. There were frequent references to the need to sustain the economy as well as the forests.
Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, one of the toughest environmental professionals in the Pacific Northwest and a man known for his sharp tongue, concluded his remarks by quoting Western contemporary writer Terry Tempest Williams: "We must be compassionate and fierce at once" - with emphasis on the "compassionate." An Earth First! radical sounding off at the microphone was met with hisses.
More important than the three-day get-together, traditional foes have been quietly meeting, holding their own mini-summit while the Clinton administration prepares for the big forest summit promised during the campaign and likely to take place this spring. The meetings have been closed to the press to avoid media grandstanding, but statements from some of those involved in the discussion have been encouraging.
Julie Norman, head of the environmental group that sponsored the activists' meeting, was quoted as saying, "The communication and dialogue are a lot farther along than they were last year."
Jackie Lange, state coordinator for the Oregon Lands Coalition - a network of 61 grass-roots groups totaling 81,000 timberworkers, miners, ranchers, and others in resource-based industries - told a local newspaper: "We're still not subscribing to the same agenda, but there is a difference this year.... The time for finger-pointing is behind us."
"Given time and understanding, I think we can reach a reasonable understanding and solve both our problems," said Jerry Lausmann, president of a timber company that is having to shut down a mill in the town where he is mayor. "I don't think frankly we're going to solve anything if we stay at odds with each other."
Such accommodation probably would have happened anyway, if only because of exhaustion from a political and legal fight that has gone on for years. But President Clinton's pledge to engage all sides in a high-level search for solutions, while greeted warily, has helped impel a closing of the gap. The timber industry knows it's now dealing with an administration (and a new Northwest congressional delegation) that is more pro-environment. At the same time, environmentalists know that a friendlier administra tion makes it harder for them simply to resist government policy, which would make them seem obstructionist.
Even before Mr. Clinton's inauguration, his people began encouraging this new give-and-take by inviting some 1,500 individuals and organizations (including unions, companies, environmentalists, Indian tribes, and local officials) to submit ideas on how the summit should be conducted. Wisely, they did not ask for specific solutions, which would have had the various interests staking out positions before the official talking had begun.
Both sides have greater reason than ever to be seen as part of the solution rather than adding to the problem. For as Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon wrote recently: "There is no room for simply upping the ante and playing forest politics the way it's always been played."