THREE important and long-overdue results have come from the Presidential Forest Conference, held in Portland, Ore., April 2.
The first is that the conference happened. The president and vice president, six top officials, and dozens of White House staff came to Portland to begin to solve a problem that has devastated an irreplaceable ecosystem and divided an entire region of the United States for decades. That so many of the highest elected officials of the new administration came to the Northwest itself represents major progress.
President Clinton inherited a mess. The two previous administrations preached law and order in our cities but practiced lawlessness on our public lands. Case after case revealed what one federal judge called "a remarkable series of violations" of the environmental laws.
In a stark and welcome contrast, the Clinton administration showed its willingness to confront and grapple seriously with these problems as stewards of public lands rather than as litigants in federal courts.
What has been needed is a president willing to get his hands dirty to solve a difficult problem, but not to play dirty by breaking the law. The effort to engage a broad group in debating substantive issues will go far in achieving the president's goal of keeping this problem in the conference room and out of the courtroom.
The second result: Despite the divisiveness that is common in the Pacific Northwest, conference participants found common ground on several seemingly intractable differences.
Everyone agreed that there must be a significant change from the failed federal policies of the past. All parties agreed that public lands in the US must be managed to protect entire ecosystems as biological communities, although environmentalists and the timber industry still differ over what this means.
To environmentalists, "ecosystem management" means "ecosystems"; to loggers, it means "management." Nonetheless, there is broad agreement that any ultimate federal solution must protect ancient forests that will support old-growth-dependent species of wildlife over the long haul.
All parties also agreed that the economies of timber-dependent towns must be addressed as a systematic whole. The timber industry still focuses on that industry exclusively; its solution is to continue to throw more public trees on the market. To others, rigorous economics will focus on a variety of important factors:
* The timber industry's increased automation and competition from other regions and other products.
* The job losses associated with those changes.
* The decreasing importance of the timber industry within the region, while the overall economic health of the region has been strong. This suggests opportunities for re-employment outside the timber industry in family wage jobs.
* The importance of producing value-added wood products rather than exporting raw logs - and with them, American jobs.
The third significant point about the conference is that the president and vice president made clear their commitments to work within existing environmental laws and to preserve the rights of Americans to enforce those laws in the courts.
The environmental laws have never been the problem. In fact, the sum total of the Bush administration's failed Northwest ancient-forest policy was an effort to gut these laws. Those efforts only encouraged agency lawlessness, promoted ecological disaster, and did nothing to address the real problems of timber workers and their communities. By making his position clear, Clinton imposed realistic and appropriate limits on potential solutions in the Northwest.
It will be some time before we see the final products of the Presidential Forest Conference.
But the Clinton administration has already shown it sees the forest, the trees, the ecosystem, and the communities. And it has shown that it is committed to helping the people of the Pacific Northwest move the debate forward.