Broad Approach to Old-Growth Forests

Between spotted owls and land-use fees, the Western US is grappling with the global challenge of sustainable development

PRESIDENT Clinton's forest conference in Portland, Ore., to review the issue of the Pacific Northwest forests should dispel any notion that this is simply a regional conflict.

Although portrayed by many as an isolated turf war between spotted owls and loggers, the current dispute in the Pacific Northwest has far broader and potentially more serious implications for the global environment, for our international credibility and leadership, and for our economy.

Deforestation is a worldwide problem, and the United States has been a vocal proponent of preserving the tropical rainforests of South America, Africa, and Asia. Yet, while we ballyhoo rainforest preservation abroad, we have allowed the destruction of similarly diverse ecosystems on our own continent.

Less than 10 percent of the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests remain. These preserves host a wide array of plant and animal life unknown anywhere else in the world: marbled murrelets, Olympic salamanders, chinook salmon, and Roosevelt elk. Many of these species, estimated to be more than 600, can survive only in old-growth forests. Some, like the Pacific yew tree, have been used in pharmaceuticals. If Americans cannot make the commitment to preserve the precious forest ecosystems in their own countr y, how can we expect citizens of developing countries to make the same commitment?

Protection is also an economic necessity. Fishing in the Pacific Northwest is a billion-dollar industry that affects as many as 60,000 people each year. The American Fisheries Society has calculated that at least 90 of the 214 endangered salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are currently in trouble primarily because of clear-cut logging on federally managed public land.

Beyond the particular economic concerns of the timber and salmon industries, larger economic forces are at work. In recent years, the region's economy has been gradually diversifying. During the 1980s, 250,000 jobs were added to the region in finance, trade, tourism, recreation, and high-tech industries. These industries have located there in part because of the unique quality of life offered by the region's environment. This quality of life and the economic benefit it provides will surely be threatened

if, at the same time the region's population rapidly expands, recreational opportunities are lost through the destruction of the forests.

The economic future of the Pacific Northwest is tied to forest preservation for other reasons as well. Dominated by towering trees up to 1,000 years old, these majestic green preserves attract visitors from all over the world. They are as much national - indeed international - treasures as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks.

With a proposal to end the stalemate promised within 60 days, the administration must now begin the hard work of crafting a solution that is far-sighted. In this process, we hope the president and his Cabinet will give due consideration to all the variables - economic, legal, environmental, and policy related - that make up the complex equation of sustainability.

As a first step in a more comprehensive approach, the administration should expand the geographic focus of the deliberations to include the forests on both sides of the Cascades; salmon and other endangered species depend on the entire Cascade ecosystem.

A comprehensive approach will also be needed to spur job creation in logging communities. For many years, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest has been declining due to increased automation, raw log exports, and industry migration to the southeast. In the last 20 years, capital investment by the largest US timber companies dropped by 60 percent in the Pacific Northwest, while mill capacity in the South during the same period rose 121 percent.

The industry's transition needs to be faced and new opportunities need to be created by retraining workers in sustainable forestry practices, encouraging broader job skills, improving rural education, and developing new sources of employment.

If we can find a truly sustainable solution that acknowledges the co-dependent nature of forest protection and economic growth, we will have demonstrated that it is sometimes possible to see the forest for the trees.

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