The Northwest's Showdown: Murrelets vs. Millworkers

IN hundreds of rural towns across the West, "endangered species" lists include more than owls, salmon, and marbled murrelets. They also number the loggers and millworkers, the farmers and fishermen who rely on natural resources for their livelihood and way of life.

People like Mark Simmons, a heavy-equipment mechanic who lives in Elgin, Ore., and has seen 253 jobs lost as four sawmills shut down around him in little more than a year. Or Jim Hallstrom, third-generation owner of Zip-O-Log Mills in Eugene, Ore., whose payroll has dwindled from 118 to just 33 workers because of federal protection for the northern spotted owl.

"In northeast Oregon, the world is falling apart around us," says Mr. Simmons, referring to an unemployment rate approaching 20 percent in Wallowa County, Ore. "It's a grim situation."

This is the message congressional representatives are getting as they conduct field hearings in the region in order to amend the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act is likely to change in ways that will give resource users and their local officials more say in protecting species.

Critics and supporters agree that the ESA, originally passed in 1973 and overdue for reauthorization, is the strongest and therefore the most controversial environmental law in the United States today.

When plant or animal species are judged to be "endangered" or "threatened," recovery plans must be written and strict prohibitions against harming such species enforced. To date, 962 species have been listed. More than 4,000 "candidate species" wait in the wings.

Scientists generally agree that some kind of official protection is needed. In a congressionally ordered study released two weeks ago, the National Research Council reported that "the current rate of extinctions is among the highest in the entire fossil record."

This group of academic experts, who worked together for more than two years, also warned that "human activities are causing the loss of biological diversity at an accelerating rate."

But the quandary for politicians is that while most agree with the general goals of the ESA, it is their human constituents who vote.

This includes contract logger Michael Wiedeman, who represents some 108,000 members of 69 groups making up the Oregon Lands Coalition.

"If we are to have healthy and diverse populations of creatures then we must have healthy and diverse communities," Mr. Wiedeman told a US Senate subcommittee meeting in Roseburg, Ore., recently. "We must recognize that people are a part of nature as well as spotted owls and salmon."

Although not all mill closures have been due to environmental restrictions, 242 primary wood processing facilities have shut down in 175 communities in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, and Montana since 1989, according to forest industries consultant Paul Ehinger.

ANOTHER problem for government agencies charged with protecting endangered species (as well as for their congressional overseers) is that the economics of enforcing the law can be just as complicated as the biology.

For example, increasing water flows and controlling erosion in the Columbia-Snake River Basin in order to save salmon (several species of which have dropped to near-extinction) can hurt farmers, ranchers, loggers, the aluminum industry, and other electric utility customers.

But letting the salmon dwindle to help those sectors of the economy can affect some 60,000 other jobs and hundreds of communities.

"What has become increasingly clear," says Bob Doppelt, executive director of the Pacific Rivers Council, a conservation group, "is that while we were supporting unsustainable activities by a few elements of the economy in the West - unsustainable timber and cattle grazing, for example - we were trading off and destroying other key elements.

"[These include] the fishing industry, the coastal communities that depend on the fishery, and the spinoff industries such as those that build boats, fishing tackle, and many other sectors of the economy," Mr. Doppelt says.

Even though Congress has become more conservative since the last election, and is scrutinizing most federal environmental policy, there is not a lot of enthusiasm for weakening what is seen as a very important environmental law.

"Frankly, a lot of people don't want to vote for this," says Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, who made sure one of the Senate hearings was held in a community where hundreds of timber workers - perhaps the most supportive part of Mr. Packwood's constituency - could be counted on to turn out in force.

Senators Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho and John Chaffee (R) of Rhode Island, who head the subcommittee and full committee with responsibility for the Endangered Species Act (and who presided over the recent hearing in the middle of spotted-owl country), say Congress will consider specific amendments to the law later this summer.

Senator Slade Gorton (R) of Washington recently introduced legislation requiring that economic and social impacts be considered before endangered species recovery plans are put in force.

Mr. Gorton's bill also requires public hearings in the affected regions, mandates "peer review" of scientific determinations about listings, incorporates "risk analysis" and "cost/benefit analysis" into the listing process, and provides for more involvement by state and local officials.

Environmentalists say this approach would severally weaken the act. "Some of the nation's most important environmental protections will be lost if this radical bill were to become law," said Lynn Greenwalt, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. Gorton disagrees.

"The bill brings people into the process and it provides incentives for local people and communities to take actions on their own for species conservation," he says. "That's not radical, that's common sense."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.