Timberland voters see beyond problem of owls ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

September 18, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

LONGVIEW, Wash. -- When Tom Wherry, an out-of-work lumberman now tending bar, heard last week that President Bush was coming to the Pacific Northwest, he laughed derisively.

"It's that damned spotted owl," he said. "The spotted owl is a tourist attraction for politicians."

Wherry got that right. President Bush waltzed into Washington and Oregon with a promise not to allow the Endangered Species Act to be extended without writing in more protection for American jobs. Democratic nominee Bill Clinton also showed up, repeating his promise to hold a "timber summit" to deal with the problems of the industry.

The issue is not as simple, however, as whether preserving the habitat of the northern spotted owl is worth the costs in the jobs of lumbermen. And voters here understand that. Jobs in the lumber industry have been lost because of automation, the decline in housing starts, foreign and domestic competition and a host of other factors -- including the owls. As Randall Means, an accountant working in Portland, put it: "I'm not an environmental nut and I don't lose sleep over the spotted owl, but we all know the problem is more complicated than that."

If you listen to the extremists on each end of the spotted owl debate, you will hear that saving the bird will absolutely wreck the economy of both Washington and Oregon or, alternatively, have no real effect at all. But no one argues there are not problems in the timber industry, just as in California no one believes the travail of high-tech industries will be solved with a magic bullet solution.

There is, nonetheless, some valid political logic in both campaigns competing here in two states that Michael Dukakis won narrowly in 1988 and are now leaning heavily to Bill Clinton. For his part, Bush is trying to make the point that his Democratic opponent is an environmental extremist, a charge that might stick better on his runing mate, Al Gore. It is a tricky point to make considering that the Republicans also have been attacking Clinton for a weak record on protecting the Arkansas environment as governor.

In short, Bush is trying to send a national message that Clinton's concern for jobs ends where the spotted owl begins. Meanwhile, Clinton is determined to define his own position on the issue, just as he has on one question after another all through the campaign. The concern here is as much the national image as zTC Washington's 11 and Oregon's seven electoral votes.

This doesn't suggest there aren't cultural and demographic differences that make some states better targets for Bush or Clinton than others. But what it does mean is that the preoccupation with the condition of the economy is so widespread and deep that the election has become essentially a referendum on Bush's record and the credibility of his promises to do better in a second term.

Although the economy in the Northwest is healthier than in neighboring California, the jobs issue is still the one at the head of the list. That is what makes the spotted owl question worth confronting. "It means people's pocketbooks so it's important," Chapman says. And this general concern over the economy has put Clinton ahead by 10 points or more in both states.

The Republicans are not conceding, of course. Craig Berkman, the state Republican chairman in Oregon, says: "We're obviously behind here now but we're in the hunt." The key, Republicans here and elsewhere say, is Bush's ability to articulate a coherent economic message, which the polls suggest he has not yet done.

So the argument over the environment vs. jobs is only one facet of the political debate. A strategist for Rep. Les AuCoin, the Democratic Senate candidate in Oregon, says: "They've been living with this long enough so that they know it's not either-or."

Tom Wherry agrees. "I wish Mr. Bush could come in here with an instant solution to all our problems," he says. "But if he had the answer, he would have told us a long time ago. It stands to reason."

This is the heart of the problem for the president. Election-year concern about the northern spotted owl comes too late to be persuasive with voters whose jobs continue to be jeopardized.

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