Timber Decisions

`I CANNOT repeal the laws of change."

With these words, President Clinton on Friday summed up the most significant force affecting the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest, spotted owls notwithstanding. Opening additional old-growth forests to logging is not the answer to helping the region cope with economic change.

The drama being played out in the Northwest is similar in many ways to the one played out on the world stage in developing countries: Tensions arise in the attempt to balance environmental responsibility in exploiting natural resources with the legitimate need for economic growth.

In the Northwest, about 10 percent of the original old-growth forests remain, mostly on federal land. In the 1980s, even this was subject to intense logging; old-growth trees on private lands had been harvested. Although much of the private land has been replanted, the timber will not be ready to harvest for up to 20 years, and in any case do not replace an old-growth ecosystem.

In the Pacific Northwest, 132 sawmills have closed since 1990, at a cost of nearly 13,000 jobs. The industry attributes this to the recession and court injunctions preventing the government from opening more land. But other trends suggest a longer-term decline in timber-related jobs in the region: mechanization, exports of raw logs, and the growth of the Southeast's timber industry.

The Northwest should get help to deal with the changes. This can be accomplished through policies that reinforce sustainable forest management, directed aid, job training, and the growth of other industries. During the 1980s, for example, the region picked up 250,000 jobs in other sectors.

The old-growth forests are harder to replace. Moreover, they support not only endangered species such as the northern spotted owl, but waterways vital to salmon, another economically important resource for the region.

Better to adjust now and maintain this natural and economic resource than to continue whittling away at it, only to lose the forest, as well as the timber jobs, later.

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