SAN FRANCISCO — Environmentalists risked the wrath of Congress by declining Tuesday to accept a compromise in the battle over the nation's dwindling old-growth forests, but efforts to salvage the deal were launched immediately.
Talks resumed Tuesday afternoon after a key House budget subcommittee vote was postponed until Thursday, giving negotiators more time to seek mutually acceptable timber-harvest limits for the fiscal year beginning in October.
Without a breakthrough, the current standoff may lead to more mill closures and thousands more layoffs. It may also spur Oregon's congressional delegation--a leader in timber matters--to try to weaken environmental-protection and logging-practices laws.
'Tidal Wave of Job Losses'
"We made it clear on Saturday that we were not willing to accept a tidal wave of job loss and the disruption of lives," said Republican Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, leader of the delegation and of the effort to find a bipartisan compromise.
The proposal was offered by Oregon's seven-member delegation and Democratic Gov. Neil Goldschmidt after a historic eight-hour summit Saturday between environmentalists and timber industry leaders in Salem, the state capital.
Basically, the deal would set harvest levels for a cooling-off period--4.8 billion board-feet this fiscal year and 5.2 billion in 1990. A board-foot is a measurement a foot square and an inch thick; about 150,000 three-bedroom homes could be built with 1 billion board-feet of timber.
The levels are lower than what the industry has demanded, but more than that allowed under two federal court orders won by environmentalists. Congressional staffers said that level, or "cut," would be enough to preserve an estimated 6,000 jobs in the short term.
Environmentalists are being asked to give up their successful court fight and not sue again during the length of the compromise agreement, which would extend to Oct. 1, 1990. In return, they would for the first time have congressionally recognized protection of Oregon's old-growth, or virgin, Douglas fir forests.
Old-growth has been the subject of a long and bitter debate in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest. The industry position is that old-growth is unproductive and should be replaced by vigorous, new, managed tree farms. Environmentalists say the "ancient" forests are invaluable sources of wildlife, beauty, recreation and biological diversity--and the only viable habitat for such rare species as the northern spotted owl.
Environmentalists have obtained injunctions in two lawsuits that have tied up about one-third of the scheduled federal timber sales in Oregon and similar amounts in California and Washington. This has been blamed for an unusual rash of layoffs, but some people contend that log exports and automation are to blame.
The controversy is so intense because environmentalists say that as little as 10% of the original old-growth remains. Industry says the forests must be cut or the region's huge timber industry could collapse.
Three points are holding up the compromise, an environmental coalition said in a letter Tuesday to the Oregon delegation and Goldschmidt.
Environmentalists said they believe that the timber supply sought in the proposal is available without cutting old-growth, but by selling other, less mature trees and by closing legal loopholes that allow the export of raw, uncut logs.
Specific Numbers Reported
Environmentalists also requested specific numbers supporting the proposal's protection for "significant" stands of old-growth. They suggested protecting stands of as small as 80 acres; congressional staff members said the limit can be no smaller than 400 acres to make the agreement work.
Lastly, the environmentalists balked at the request that they forsake their right to sue if the settlement is not enforced to their expectations.
Conciliatory wording in the letter and private conversations have led some congressional intermediaries to remain hopeful.
Said one: "As we see it, there are no red lights here."