SWEET HOME, Ore. — Steve Rood was on a last tour through the old Sweet Home Sawmill, hopping down creaking catwalks to look at a cannibalized edging saw.
"It is no fun seeing it this way," he said, and sighed.
Rood will not have to look for long at the idled mill in the heart of town. Workmen already were busy dismantling the massive old building plank by plank, setting aside the pieces to meet an inglorious end as free firewood.
As the mill shrinks in size, it grows as a symbol of the timber controversy in the Pacific Northwest. The Willamette Industries plant is the third mill to close in the last year in this mill town of 6,890 people, and one of at least a score of sawmills idled throughout Oregon in that time.
Willamette Industries and others cite several reasons for closing their mills, but the one that most often boils people's blood is the log supply shortage attributed to lawsuits over the future of the northern spotted owl.
With the failure last month of a summit between preservationists and timber companies, and the start next month of hearings on whether to formally protect the owl, many people fear environmental concerns will close other mills soon.
Maybe one of Sweet Home's five remaining mills will be among those closed.
Maybe all of them.
"There's a pervading uncertainty and questioning," said Erik V. Kvarsten, the Sweet Home city manager. "People here are uncertain about their very livelihood. This area is good for one thing, logging, and people here see that being taken away from them."
Even for people used to the boom-and-bust logging industry, the prospect of massively expanding wildlife preserves--one-fourth of this year's U.S. Forest Service timber sales and a third of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's sales have been blocked by court order--is frightening.
"The 1982 recession was caused by cyclical issues like interest rates, and people realized they would eventually right themselves," Kvarsten said. "But with these environmental issues, people are not sure it will ever change. They don't see it ever ending or getting better."
In Oregon, with its uniquely generous revenue-sharing plan with the federal government, losing timberland means losing much more than a few thousand jobs. It also means losing timber receipts set aside for schools and roads--perhaps $72 million lost to the state.
"Those of us who live here, we are caught between the preservationists and the industry," said John Kunzman, who owns two Sweet Home timber-supply shops and organizes grass-roots support for loggers throughout the Northwest. "We're the ones being squeezed in the middle; we're the ones being crushed."
Sweet Home will not sour without a fight. As in a growing number of logging communities, from Happy Camp, Calif., to Forks, Wash., yellow ribbons fly from homes, cars and businesses to show support for loggers. And lately tiny yellow dots have appeared on the cash that loggers spend, illustrating the importance of their paychecks to the region's economy.
Last week, some folks in Sweet Home went so far as to issue open invitations to city dwellers from Portland, Los Angeles and even New York City to come for a brief visit--stay with a local family if necessary--and see for themselves what logging is all about.
"We want people to come here and see what we are doing," said Dan Conrad, a Willamette Industries employee. "We want them to see that we aren't tearing up the land, and we aren't about to cut down the last tree in Oregon."
Conrad and Kunzman--leaders of the Sweet Home chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, a grass-roots lobbying group--say they have heard from relatives and friends who mistakenly believe that Oregon is about to lose its last tree.
Reality is far more complex.
Leading Timber State
In fact, Oregon is still by far the country's most productive timber state, followed by California and Washington.
Like those states, Oregon is covered by many millions of trees that contain many billions of board-feet of wood. The temperate, well-watered, mineral-rich Coast Range and Cascade Range mountains remain the best places on the planet to grow softwood trees, especially straight and strong Douglas fir.
But there are problems. Not all those trees are readily available. Many are preserved in parks and wilderness areas. Many more, on intensively cut private lands, are too young to harvest until well into the next century.
What is left, to a great extent, are the federal forests managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. But these public lands have many uses--only one of which is to supply timber. Providing recreation is another, as is protecting watershed that supplies most of the region's surface water.
Accommodating wildlife is another land use, with the northern spotted owl causing the most concern at the moment. To help maintain a degree of biological diversity that scientists say is needed to preserve the environment, a federal law forbids the government to drive any species into extinction.