Clinton's 'timber summit' to draw huge crowds

April 02, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's long-promised "timber summit" in the Pacific Northwest today is beginning to look like a giant photo opportunity shoehorned into a six-hour break on his way to the Vancouver summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

An avalanche of lumberjacks, environmentalists, industrialists, trade unionists and fishermen -- about 30,000 in all -- is expected to descend on the Portland, Ore., convention center.

"Anyone [who] uses wood and paper products needs to be outside that door!" urged the Oregon Lands Coalition, an industry-aligned grass-roots group, in a newsletter.

The object of their attentions is the dispute known simply as "owls vs jobs:" an issue with implications far beyond the future of the Pacific Northwest's shrinking old-growth forests, its timber industry or even the fate of the endangered northern spotted owl.

Loggers and environmentalists believe the conference could set the tone for future battles between the principles of conservation on one hand and economic or social cost on the other -- battles that will range from clean air and water legislation to international protection of biodiversity.

Some expressed concern this week that hype might end up hiding substance at the conference.

"I hope this doesn't turn into a carnival, because it's deadly serious," said Joan Smith, a community activist for the pro-logging Klamath Alliance for Resources and the Environment northern California.

"This isn't just about jobs; it's about a way of life," she said. "And this could be our last chance."

The controversy revolves around a May 1991 decision by a U.S. district judge in Seattle. He found government logging practices incompatible with species conservation and ordered logging to cease across millions of acres of the endangered spotted owl's habitat in Washington, Oregon and northern California.

Logging companies and mills have since lost an estimated 17,000 jobs -- an 8 percent reduction. Industry and community activists blame the owl for most of it. But environmentalists argue that recession and mechanization are largely the cause, pointing out that the timber industry lost 26,000 jobs to automation in the decade preceding the court order.

Scientists say there are about 3,000 pairs of northern spotted owls still in existence, depending for survival on the canopy and woody debris of the old-growth forests. Without them, they would die out.

The conference stems directly from a campaign pledge Mr. Clinton made in a speech last fall to hold a "timber summit" to help the loggers and conservationists reach a compromise.

Mr. Clinton is taking a crowd of his own: Vice President Al Gore, four Cabinet secretaries, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a scattering of officials and advisers.

The Clinton team is not expected to present any major initiatives beyond those to which it is already committed, such as job

retraining for out-of-work loggers and searching for ways to balance logging with broad ecosystemic conservation.

Mr. Clinton said last week his aim was "to go out there . . . and listen, hammer out the alternatives, and then take a position that I think will break the logjam. . . . It may be like my economic program; it'll probably make everybody mad."

For all of the thousands flocking to Portland, participation in the conference is limited to several hundred people from a broad range of interests involved in the timber industry, conservation as well as the scientific and economic communities. The White House says it has deliberately excluded Washington-based representatives and lobbyists.

Mr. Clinton will hear a tangled tale of conflicting concerns ranging from the impact of sky-high lumber prices on homebuilding, to the destruction of fish habitats by silt from denuded hillsides, to the enormous economic costs of applying the Endangered Species Act.

Some will try to persuade the president to set up a large ancient forest reserve -- larger than the state of Maryland -- to protect the owl and the rest of the 600 or more forest and riverine species that depend on the old-growth habitat.

Others will urge him to step up logging in public forests to put unemployed timber workers, truck operators and mill hands back to work and meet the world's growing demand for wood.

Still others will recommend relief packages to help communities make the transition from logging towns to those that use other forest resources, including fisheries and recreation.

While there is actually more forested land in the United States now than before logging began, environmentalists say that about 90 percent of the old growth has been felled and replaced with tree farms and plantations that cannot sustain the biological diversity of the virgin treelands.

"If we continue at the current rate, the old-growth forest -- and there's only about 10 percent of it left in the Northwest -- will be exhausted within 10 years," said Frances Hunt, a forest resource specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. "And then what are we going to do?"

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