ONE of the biggest, oldest timber companies is trying to learn new tricks.
Weyerhaeuser Company, based in Tacoma, Wash., has held ``town hall meetings'' in recent days to listen to environmentalists and others in the Pacific Northwest, where the logging industry has been vilified for rapid cutting of old-growth forests.
CEO Jack Creighton, facing a feisty Seattle crowd that sometimes called the firm the ``enemy,'' said he wanted to bridge the mistrust and misunderstanding that has developed. ``We're trying to improve,'' he said. He got input on clear-cut logging, use of chlorine compounds in bleaching paper pulp, and other topics.
The public relations effort suggests that the world's largest private owner of softwood-timber resources sees its future strongly related to environmental issues. ``We need a predictable regulatory climate and an atmosphere of trust,'' Mr. Creighton pleaded.
But the frosty tone of the audience showed that timber firms can't expect a quick patch-up of relations with their critics.
The confrontations here could represent the opening of a new front in the Northwest's war over logging. With federal lands all but off-limits to protect the spotted owl, conservationists are looking at private forests. Even before the shutdown of logging in national forests, private lands accounted for two-thirds of the region's log output. There is less state-owned land than federal or private land.
Steven Whitney of the Wilderness Society says private-forest owners are partly to blame for the shrinking habitat of species like the owl, which relies on old-growth forests, and salmon, which rely on streams in which to spawn.
To preserve the endangered ecosystems will require better practices on all lands, Mr. Whitney says. But no big progress was apparent from Weyerhaeuser, he says. ``One thing we learned is they do not intend to end the practice of clear-cutting,'' nor will the firm pledge to leave tree buffers along streams where salmon spawn. Such buffers should be required, Whitney says, not left to company discretion.
Creighton defended clear-cutting, saying it was the closest thing to the natural process of Douglas fir forest regeneration: Trees are destroyed wholesale by fire or wind and then grow back.
ANOTHER issue critics place on par with better forestry practices is the use of chlorine compounds, which Sierra Club activist Bruce Wischert calls ``one of the most significant threats to human health, bar none.''
Weyerhaeuser drew applause when Creighton said pulp operations would be free of elemental chlorine when a newly renovated plant in Longview, Wash., comes on line. Also, the company is looking to do away with other chlorine compounds by decade's end, and perhaps develop ``closed-loop'' mills with no effluent entering waterways.
Carol Dansereau of the Washington Toxics Coalition says a phaseout of compounds would be ``very significant, if it's a real commitment.'' Now, only one virgin-pulp mill in the country, and 27 in the world, are chlorine-free.
But like Whitney, Ms. Dansereau worries that company talk may not be matched by action. An industry group backed by Weyerhaeuser, for example, is leading the charge against a possible directive from Washington State Gov. Mike Lowry (D) calling for the state to buy recycled paper reprocessed without chlorine. (James River Corporation has an Oregon recycling mill that uses nonchlorine bleaching.)
Dansereau also says Weyerhaeuser and other firms have fought her efforts to promote use of unbleached paper to big consumers, even though the industry has cited lack of consumer interest for why it's reluctant to switch to other bleaching means.
Weyerhaeuser is playing catch-up on the environmental front to some of its peers, notably Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, based in Portland, Ore. Its Samoa, Calif., plant is the nation's only no-chlorine pulp plant, and the firm ended clear-cut logging five years ago. ``There's no question that environmental issues have played a big, big part in the way that our industry has gone,'' Louisiana-Pacific spokesman Barry Lacter says.