Timber Summit Aftermath: 'Balanced Solution' May Be Elusive

April 11, 1993|By STUART WASSERMAN

With President Clinton's forest conference over and its participants home, the Clinton administration now faces the hardest part of the forest struggle: hammering out a solution.

The brightest aspect of the conference was Mr. Clinton's promise that his administration will work together. The previous administration saw different natural resource agencies battling each other along with environmentalists over management of public forest lands.

Mr. Clinton wants to take the problem out of the courts -- where federal judges have charged U.S. agencies with "a remarkable series of violations of environmental laws" during the last four years. The president has promised a solution within 60 days.

Mr. Clinton said he would tackle the problem within the first 100 days of his new administration, and he did. And he has taken leadership out of the hands of the Northwest delegation and elevated it to a national concern.

Mr. Clinton, vice-president Al Gore and cabinet members gave many hints about what they are considering, but everything seems subject to change. Two weeks ago, the administration showed that it will step back from its desired goals when it runs into strong opposition. In an attempt to win Democratic Senate support for its budget, the administration dropped, at least for now, demands for mineral royalties and higher grazing fees on Western lands.

Clearly the day-long timber teach-in moved the debate from "owls vs. jobs" to focusing on the importance of ecosystem management. Almost every speaker used the term, but they still left room to disagree. "I hear ecosystem," says Andy Kerr, conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council and Mr. Geisinger [president of the Northwest Forestry Association] hears management."

The words "looking for a balanced solution" were also bandied about by both administration and industry people, but environmentalists such as Mr. Kerr clearly argued that with ninety percent of the ancient forest cut and approximately 10 percent left, that leaves little room for "balance."

James Monteith, who led the environmental battle throughout the late 1970s and 1980s as executive director of the Oregon Wilderness Coalition and then the Oregon Natural Resources Council, said "we were fighting over remnants 10 years ago," and that was before the historic cuts of the 1980s.

Mr. Clinton will will have to decide how much of the region's old growth forests should be off-limits to logging. And it will also have to decide how to manage the remaining federal lands. In 1986 at the height of the cutting on federal lands, 5.1 billion

board feet of timber was cut. Now the timber industry would like to see 3 billon board feet taken out a year, and the environmentalists are hoping for as little as 1 billion.

So what is Mr. Clinton likely to look at:

* Changing the law. Unlikely. Mr. Clinton in a private round table with Northwest journalists after the conference said that he wants to make the current environmental laws work and has no plan at this point to seek changes in them.

* Tinker with eliminating the tax break for exports of unprocessed logs. More likely. Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore questioned panelists on how much timber likely would become available for domestic milling if federal tax incentives for log exporters were repealed. Any curb on exports would give domestic mill owners and workers access to more and cheaper raw logs to help replace those lost to lower harvests on federal lands.

Industry officials say the administration would just be trading mill jobs for longshoremen jobs, but one Washington state study says milling logs creates 6.5 times as many jobs as exporting them. Currently, one out of four logs from the Northwest is shipped to Japan.

* Defer any action on protecting old-growth timber in Eastern Washington and Oregon. Environmentalists want eastside old-growth forests protected, too, and threatened last weekend that they would litigate if the administration and Congress did not protect those vast areas.

Environmentalists seem worried about how much spotted owl habitat Mr. Clinton will protect. Speaking in reference to the administration backtracking on grazing fees, Jay Hair, president of the Wilderness Society said: "What kind of started out like a love affair, quite frankly now is feeling more like date rape, and we are unhappy about that."

The president seemed encouraged by Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor who has been dubbed the "father of new forestry," when he said, "We can build new spotted owl habitat," but he warned "it's unlikely we are going to know any time soon how to grow old-growth forests. The complexity of those systems is beyond imagination."

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