Timber-r-r-r! ! !

April 06, 1993

After taking on the job as logjam-breaker in the explosive battle between environmentalists and loggers in the Pacific Northwest, President Clinton must have considered his meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin last weekend as easy as breaking a match-stick. Instead of dealing with a foreign leader whose agenda coincides with his, Mr. Clinton had to begin fashioning a Northwest compromise that he knew in advance would work only if it satisfies none of the voters he so loves to woo.

Ever since a federal judge ordered an end in 1991 to logging in a Maryland-sized forest area that is home to the endangered northern spotted owl, Washington, Oregon and northern California have been a battleground. More than 20,000 lumber industry workers have lost their jobs. Small logging towns have been devastated as local mills shut down. Confronted with shrill anger and frustration, environmentalists have responded by saying that gross overcutting had depleted forest resources beyond renewal limits and had endangered another vital industry -- salmon fishing.

At the Clinton timber summit in Portland Friday, the mantra heard on all sides was "eco-system management." It had the advantage of a two-word ambiguity that let environmentalists take comfort in "eco-system" and the lumber industry (and its workers) in "management." This was sufficient to give Mr. Clinton the leeway to declare a 60-day cease fire while his administration goes in search of amelioration.

There are indeed some options available, though each one has a downside. Elimination of the tax break for the export of unprocessed logs, for example, would hurt industry giants like Weyerhaeuser and private landowners who profit from short domestic supply but would open up a more lucrative source of timber for mill owners and their workers. A forest and watershed restoration program would provide for jobs for displaced workers, many of whom wonder just what they can be retrained for. Guaranteed federal timber sales from unimpacted forests also could relieve some unemployment pain, but would annoy the spotted owl lobby.

Whatever the president concocts, he deserves credit for grabbing the nettle instead of letting it sting indefinitely. Rep. Al Swift, a Washington state Democrat, put it well: "President Clinton's visit indicates a willingness to engage very directly in what is a no-win situation politically. The Bush administration treated this like a vial of nitro-glycerin, which in fact it is."

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