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Sunday, April 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Old-growth logging nearing a standstill in dramatic shift

Seattle Times staff reporter

To grasp just how much the Northwest woods have changed, consider this: In a region once synonymous with logging, some local mills now bring raw logs in from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

A decade after President Clinton tried to settle the conflict between spotted owls and logging by making 85 percent of the Northwest's federal forests off-limits to chain saws, at least one company has turned to hauling logs by rail to wood-starved Northwest mills — some from across the region, others from as far as Tennessee.

"Some mills today are no longer close to the timber, or there's not enough supply of certain types of logs, so they import the wood from someplace else," said Scott Olmstead, with Hoquiam-based Paneltech, a log transporter.

Completed 10 years ago this week, Clinton's landmark Northwest Forest Plan came to symbolize the greatest period of upheaval on national forests in a half-century, as the White House and lawsuits by environmentalists forced the U.S. Forest Service to embrace a new conservation ethic.

Now, as the Bush administration chips away at the forest plan to make good on a campaign promise to jump-start Northwest logging, the battle lines sound familiar: Environmentalist and the timber industry are back in court. Scientists are choosing sides. Monkey-wrenchers promise to secure themselves in the tops of Northwest old-growth trees.

Even if it all sounds familiar, it's not. The landscape over the last decade has fundamentally changed.

In the late 1980s, our region accounted for 40 percent of all federal-land logging. Today, logging's focus has shifted to 13 southeastern states that provide two-thirds of the country's timber harvest — primarily on private land. Logging in the country's national forests is at the lowest level since World War II.

Awash in wood

And despite regional log shortages that spur the rail trade, the country is awash in wood. Globalization, increased efficiency in timber production, and the environmental costs of public-land logging have simply changed how we get it.

Consider:

• In 1987, loggers cut 12.7 billion board feet of timber from all national forests. By 2002, the figure had fallen to 1.7 billion board feet.

• Many of the biggest timber companies have largely left the federal woods for private tree plantations, or they log in Canada or overseas.

• Timber harvest on private lands from Virginia to Texas doubled since the late 1970s. One-third of that growth has occurred since 1991.

• In sprawling Los Angeles, 2-by-4s cut from Chile and New Zealand now compete with Northwest lumber.

Even some environmentalists maintain Bush's changes will do little to reverse those trends. Under his proposal, timber cut from federal land across Oregon, Washington and California each year could double. But that's still only about as much as loggers took from Oregon's Willamette National Forest alone in 1990.

"Are we going to turn back the clock? I don't think so," said Andy Stahl, who runs the environmental-watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "For the foreseeable future, this paradigm shift is indelible."

For their part, the timber industry and the Bush administration insist they're only after a portion of the region's large trees not explicitly protected by the forest plan — old-growth stands they believe Clinton promised but didn't deliver.

But that's the dilemma: At a time when old-growth logging is no longer an intrinsic part of the region's economic fabric and there are fewer old trees left than at any time in our history, a question lingers: Should we cut them at all?

"We've moved on as a society and we really don't think cutting old-growth forests is appropriate any more," said Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor who played a key role in drafting Clinton's plan.

Mysteries unveiled

Only in the last 20 years have scientists really begun to unravel the mysteries of the moss-draped forests that rise from the Olympic Peninsula and down the flanks of the Cascades from Canada to Northern California.

On a misty spring day, Forest Service ecologists Robin Lesher and Jan Henderson hike in the shade of 1,500-year-old trees near Mount Pilchuck, in Snohomish County. They scan thick duff for mosses and tubular lichens and scratch through decaying roots for fungi and vascular plants. "Here we go," shouts Lesher, as she picks out a tiny green plant with fern-like leaves known as Coptis aspleniifolia, or goldthread.

The plant grows only in the litter of cold, old-growth forests, and surveys have found it in a mere half-dozen spots in the Cascades. It's vulnerable to logging, which allows sunlight to penetrate and dry the plant's bedding.

Despite the attention garnered by the northern spotted owl, Clinton's forest plan also attempted to protect species such as goldthread.

By the 1980s, scientists were learning about the symbiotic relationship among critters in these forests. Increasingly scarce spotted owls, for example, fed on squirrels and red tree voles, which in turn fed on fungi or Douglas fir needles. The rodents' waste kept forests rich in nitrogen.

When timber harvests ticked upward under President Reagan, environmentalists grasped this new science and fought back with lawyers and tree spikes. In 1991, U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer halted most timber sales in the Northwest to protect habitat crucial for the owl and other species.

Loggers and carpenters wrangled a promise in 1992 out of a campaigning Bill Clinton to hold a summit if elected to protect the forests and get the timber machine rolling. A year later, the new administration did, and scientists began the most exhaustive environmental analyses in history.

Unmet projections

The Clinton administration projected it could provide loggers about 1 billion board feet of timber each year — 20 percent of the region's cut in the 1980s. Most would come from old-growth in Oregon and in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It never happened.

Despite the projections, "the deal highly favored people who wanted less timber harvested," said Mark Rey, a Department of Agriculture undersecretary for Bush who oversees the Forest Service.

The plan called for watershed analyses and surveys for hundreds of potentially rare species of wildflowers, insects and plants — including goldthread — before logging. With salmon in decline, it required a review of each timber sale's impact on streams.

The result: Timber harvests dropped to between half and one-third of the 1 billion board feet projection. Some in the industry seethed.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Republicans raked in $1 million from Northwest timber-industry leaders at a Portland fund-raiser. Bush promised to step up logging on federal land.

Last month, the Forest Service abolished rules requiring surveys for species such as goldthread, arguing that they were costly and were uncovering species that didn't need special protection. The agency abandoned efforts to prove individual timber sales wouldn't harm streams.

The administration hired consultants to review the status of the spotted owl, which could lead to it being removed from endangered-species protections, particularly in Northern California. That review isn't expected until after the November election.

"The plan's requirements were more complicated than the authors intended, and that complication led to difficulty in the field," Rey said. "What this president has committed to is achieving the plan's objectives. We've done our best to achieve that goal."

But the industry — and the Forest Service — are no longer what they were.

Shift to conservation

Clinton's plan, and the growing environmental movement, marked a shift in thinking about national forests — from timber producers to havens for wildlife and fresh water. That change snowballed across the West, aiding an industry transformation already under way.

The Clinton administration "came to a general conclusion: Timber production had played too big a part on national forests," said Bob Dick, with the industry group American Forest Resource Council.

In Southern California, timber harvest declined as the agency protected a cousin of the spotted owl. In Arizona and New Mexico, it was the Mexican spotted owl. There were conflicts over goshawks in the Black Hills and salmon and grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies.

"It's ironic," said Jim Furnish, who in the mid-1990s was the supervisor of Oregon's Siuslaw National Forest and now works with environmental groups. "We cut more timber than ever in our history in 1987, and then it came to a screeching halt. The echo, or consequence, was endangered species."

That, in turn, cost jobs. Between 1989 and 2004, more than 200 Northwest sawmills closed. Employment in the wood-products industry in Oregon and Washington dropped 30 percent.

But the forest plan shares only some responsibility. Log prices jumped immediately after the plan was adopted, prompting export markets to seek cheaper sources of wood. Canadian lumber imports to the U.S. rose, which provoked mill closures here and elsewhere. Then prices plummeted as world markets evaporated during the Asian economic crisis.

Surviving Northwest mills redesigned to accommodate available smaller logs. The industry built a market for spindly trees that since has surpassed demand for the region's traditional old-growth. It developed new technology to improve efficiency and piece together other wood for plywood.

Other companies, such as Willamette Industries (now owned by Weyerhaeuser), sparked a logging explosion on private lands in the Southeast, where trees grow faster and are harvested like crops.

As U.S. wood consumption rose, so did imports.

"The story the numbers tell in combination with the trend lines in Canada and Brazil and Malaysia is people who think locally and act globally," Rey said. "The last pulp and paper mill in California is about to close."

In other words, he said, the country exported its environmental problems.

Some still eye old-growth

Despite the industry's rapid transformation to smaller trees — Boise Cascade, for example, recently committed to stop logging U.S. old-growth — a small, politically active group of Northwest timber companies wants federal lands reopened to old-growth logging.

The Forest Service says it wants to sell more trees, including some old-growth. But in an election year, with pressure from environmentalists, it's not clear how much more logging will take place or when.

Environmentalists lobbying Congress are joined by powerful voices. Former Forest Service chiefs Mike Dombeck and Jack Ward Thomas, who served under Clinton, say there's too little old-growth left and fighting to log it distracts from pressing issues, such as recreation and wildfires.

The administration isn't blind to those arguments but insists environmentalists won't concede that the industry can use the wood.

"There is more than enough mill capacity to utilize the material that could be produced," Rey said. "It may be a different mix of materials, and the premium for larger-diameter logs isn't what it used to be. But there's... still sufficient need and opportunity."

Any ban on old-growth logging, he said, can come only after negotiations between the industry and environmentalists.

"It's a debate over a political outcome, rather than a scientific one," he said. "They're going to have to engage each other and compromise."

In the meantime, the administration won't likely push controversial old-growth sales this summer. There is no budget increase to fund such a ramp-up for the fiscal year that ends Oct. 30.

Although such a move would be cheered by timber interests invested in re-electing Bush, it may not sway swing voters in states such as Washington and Oregon, where polls suggest voters no longer favor old-growth logging.

Absent a compromise, however, Rey said the administration will ultimately provide "the funding necessary" — presumably after the November election.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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