PRESIDENT Clinton's recent forest summit brought to the nation's attention a question that has torn apart the timber-dependent towns of the Pacific Northwest for the past decade: How can we revive the health of lands ravaged by logging and preserve the country's last virgin stands of temperate rain forests while rebuilding the devastated economies and divided communities?
Tentative answers are being found today in the remote coastal mountains of northern California. Over the past 20 years, ex-urbanites with a passion for the wilderness have moved into the steep, wooded watersheds that shelter the world's tallest trees to defend the few remaining ancient forests.
Over the past five years, forest activists throughout the Pacific Northwest have formed local networks and regional alliances, placed initiatives on the ballot, and lobbied for legislation to prevent further cutting. The forest activists have deeply angered many long-time residents with an equal passion for the trees but with livelihoods that depend on logging them.
Realizing they can only save the trees from the saw by making environmentally sustainable practices economically sustainable as well, ancient-forest advocates throughout the Northwest have begun experimenting with techniques to harvest salvage timber from the logged-over second-growth forests of the region. What remains after the felling of the giant Douglas firs over the past 30 years are hardwoods like tanoak, madrone, white and black oak - trees long dismissed as economically worthless.
But as the supply of big trees has dwindled, some people have begun to reconsider the value of these "trash trees." In 1985 schoolteachers Jan and Peggy Iris established Wild Iris Forestry, dedicated to a vision of small-scale, watershed-based restoration work that would simultaneously glean useful wood from logged-over land, provide gainful employment for local residents, and help restore the forest ecology.
Acknowledging that harvesting timber by highly selective, environmentally sensitive methods would always cost more than conventional clear cutting, Mr. Iris argued that the key to economic viability was to add as much value as possible to the raw logs before passing them on to the consumer. At present, many trees taken from old-growth forests in the Northwest are shipped overseas in unprocessed form, in effect exporting the wide range of jobs involved in fashioning the wood into unusable products.
Iris's idea was to restore the viability of the forests and generate jobs in the process, bringing highly skilled, potentially well-paid work back home to rebuild the economy and ecology at the same time. He died before his vision could be fully implemented, but his wife continues the work, producing tanoak flooring that competes favorably with Eastern oak.
Meanwhile, interest in the Wild Iris vision of sustainable forestry has mushroomed, and an Institute for Sustainable Forestry has been spun off to handle the growing demand for information.
Concerned that some timber operators will seek to "greenwash" their products by making false claims for their harvesting techniques, the Institute and a new international organization, the Forest Stewardship Council, are initiating a program to certify wood harvested and processed by environmentally sustainable means.
But consumer interest in environmentally correct forest products is growing far more rapidly than the capacity of these fledgling, small-scale efforts to respond to it. "Are you guys the ones with guilt-free wood?," a caller from Los Angeles recently asked Wild Iris.
At the moment, however, there is not enough capital to build the structures and buy the tools that even a small-scale operation requires. Moreover, there are few incentives to invest in sustainable forestry. Current regulations favor conventional logging techniques.
But this situation may soon change. State and federal forest agencies express increasing interest in applying New Forestry techniques to both public and private lands.
With a sympathetic new administration in Washington, funding may soon follow for sustainable forestry experiments. Michael Evenson, one of a new breed of ecological entrepreneurs, has put his three children through college by recycling used lumber and salvage logging with a horse. His "Vision 2020" proposes a pioneering partnership between the Six Rivers National Forest and local, nonprofit sustainable forestry organizations for the long-term restoration of a logged-over, 70,000-acre watershed near the O regon border.
State and federal forest officials have been surprisingly responsive to these as-yet-unproven ideas. Six Rivers' Forest Supervisor Martha J. Ketelle sees Vision 2020 as a means of rebuilding public confidence in the Forest Service.
Wild Iris and the Institute for Sustainable Forestry report similar enthusiasm from state forestry officials. Mr. Evenson argues that when hidden subsidies are subtracted and long-term consequences factored in, conventional logging techniques turn out to be much more costly than sustainable practices.
But that is long-term thinking in a culture unaccustomed to looking past the next quarter's profits.
The success of sustainable forestry will hinge on the cooperation of organizations and cultures that have hitherto been implacably opposed to one another. Will small-scale, watershed-based enterprises like Wild Iris attract sufficient support from consumers, government agencies, and private investors to become financially self-sustaining?
Will big timber companies adopt genuinely sustainable forest practices? And will loggers who have spent generations cutting the big trees successfully adapt to the smaller scale, gentler touch, and more modest wages of restoration forestry?