WITHOUT doubt, saying "whoa," or at least "go slower," to harvesters of prime old-growth timber in the public forest lands of the United States is excruciatingly difficult.
But America can't preserve its majestic National Forests, especially those in the Pacific Northwest, without drastically diminishing an industry that has supported thousands of families in the region for more than two centuries and produced jobs in related industries elsewhere in the country.
The Clinton administration is expected to make public, within a few weeks, a number of proposed steps, including reducing the annual amount of prime timber that could be cut by about half of the more than 3.5 billion board feet a year from 1985 through 1989.
Forest industry sources indicate that the 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion board feet of lumber that could be produced annually would not be sufficient to sustain the industry. But they haven't given up yet, and they have powerful advocates in Washington.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas Foley (D) of Washington is one; so is US Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon. President Clinton needs their support for his other programs. Yet even carefully paced timber-harvesting monitored by the US Forest Service would eventually exhaust the resource and force people to find other means of livelihood, which could entail leaving the area.
It doesn't make sense to remain so dependent upon a resource and a related industry - timber harvesting and milling - that other valid and income-producing activities, like recreation and tourism, are made less attractive, too. It's wrenching to give up a way of life. But exploiting the resource until it is exhausted certainly is not a valid policy. There is no good reason to permit such an outcome.
Fortunately, establishment of the National Parks system has protected many natural areas across the nation; but most of the National Forests are considered exploitable resources.
Ultimately, this issue will provide an acid test of environmental and economic policy for the president, Congress, citizens of the Northwest, and the rest of us.