AT a time of declining timber supplies and the shut-down of hundreds of mills - not to mention concern over a degraded environment - does it make sense to export nearly one-fourth of the trees cut down in the Pacific Northwest?
This is the essence of a debate over whether to ban the shipment of raw logs from the West Coast.
Congressional supporters of a proposed ban point out that three-fourths of the 1.7 billion board-feet of unprocessed logs that leave United States ports each year are bound for Japan. There, protectionist trade barriers against imported processed wood cost thousands of jobs in the United States timber industry.
In the ranks of those who want a ban are some labor unions and the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, which see the issue in terms of the 6,000 jobs that could be saved if exported logs were first turned into lumber, plywood, and veneer in this country.
Environmental groups also favor the ban as an offset to the jobs lost to court-ordered protection for endangered species such as the spotted owl.
But log exporters, from industrial giants like Weyerhaeuser to owners of small wood lots, are fighting the ban. They have two powerful allies, the Clinton administration and House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington.
Leading the fight to ban log exports from private lands (which already are banned on federal land) is Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon, who earlier this month submitted the ``Timber Fair Trade and Forest Conservation Act of 1994.''
The bill would amend the Export Administration Act of 1979 by requiring the Secretary of Commerce to impose export controls on unprocessed timber when a ``critical short supply of such timber exists for domestic manufacturing purposes.'' As defined in the bill, such short supply already exists in the Northwest.
Mr. DeFazio's bill has some 24 co-sponsors in the House (including three committee chairmen), and Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana is expected to offer the measure in the Senate.
Writing to President Clinton in March, DeFazio and three other congressmen pointed out that under the administration's own estimates, ``it will most likely be 1997 before the theoretically sustainable timber sale levels allowed by your new Northwest forest plan are actually offered [under federal government regulations].''
Meanwhile, the lawmakers noted, ``If Japan was not one of the world's foremost practitioners of protectionist trade policy, the more efficient US forest products industry would dominate the huge Japanese market for paper, lumber, and plywood.''
In a response to DeFazio last week, US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor expressed regret that the US was unable to obtain from Japan the elimination of tariffs on all wood products during the recent Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. But, Mr. Kantor added, ``I do not believe that invocation of export restrictions on logs based on short supply concerns would be the appropriate response to Japan's intransigence.''
Opponents of such measures as the DeFazio bill promise to ``fight them tooth and nail,'' as Jerry Hendricks, executive director of Washington Citizens for World Trade, put it recently. This group (which includes timber companies, wood lot owners, longshoremen, port authorities, and tugboat operators) points to a University of Washington study showing that an export ban would cost tree farmers in the region $665 million a year and 5,000 jobs.
``Ironically, the major loser from a ban on private log exports is the environment,'' says Mr. Hendricks, referring to tree farms that might be converted to other development instead of being replanted.