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A Hollow Victory for Old-Growth Camp

Trees: Major Northwest timber company has pledged to end logging of old forests. But many such tracts are already on the chopping block.


ROSEBURG, Ore. — This is America's timber country. The rolling green carpets that sweep into the mountains are home both to 28 million acres of commercial forest and to the largest stand of old-growth timber in the world.

Most people here in Douglas County have never thought twice about cutting a few trees--not surprising in a place where unemployment is at 11% and a third of the jobs left are linked to the forest.

But while the demand for new logging continues to be heard in timber towns across the Pacific Northwest, it appears there is substantial public support for setting aside the stands of huge, old trees that have all but disappeared except for on the lush, rain-fed slopes of the western Cascades.

When asked recently whether they favored an end to logging in old-growth forests on public lands, 63% of residents in resource-dependent areas such as Douglas County said yes. So did 70% of those in Oregon and Washington overall.

And in what could be an important shift by the timber industry, Boise Cascade Corp., now known simply as Boise, announced last month that it would end all logging on large stands of old-growth forest. The company, the largest purchaser of federal timber in the country, cited the dwindling availability of old trees, mostly due to environmental controls.

"Less than 1% of the wood we use in our manufacturing operations comes from what most people would consider old growth," Boise spokesman Mark Moser said. "And the direction of federal forest policy management was to offer less and less old growth for sale. It was sort of an evolution that we got to, and we decided we might as well discontinue it altogether."

But conservationists say consumer pressure for products free of old-growth fiber also was a factor.

"I think that what we've seen in the last six or seven years is a shift in public sentiment. . . . People see the converting of 800-year-old trees into 2-by-4s or copy paper as just being barbaric and unnecessary," said Michael Brune of the Rainforest Action Network. The conservation group has led a consumer drive against Boise and other firms to shut down logging on old-growth forests.

Though logging on public lands always has been controversial, at issue now are forests that may be anywhere from 150 to 800 years old--areas sometimes called "cathedral" forests, with towering, moss-draped stands of Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar. These trees are invaluable to the industry for making high-grade beams, doors, moldings and telephone poles.

The federal government has shielded about 21 million acres of the 24 million acres of federal forest land in the Pacific Northwest from logging--including 7.4 million acres set aside as old-growth reserves. But at least 440,000 acres of classic old growth, and another 600,000 acres of younger but still "mature" forest, are within areas scheduled for logging over the next few years under the Northwest Forest Plan brokered by then-President Clinton.

Most of this land is in the Umpqua National Forest in and around Douglas County, as well as the Mount Hood, Willamette, Rogue River and Siskyou national forests of Oregon and Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

In California, about 10% of the Sierra Nevada forests are old growth; some stands also remain along the state's northern coast. Much of that land is scheduled for logging in coming years.

Conservation groups say that with all but 10% of the historic Western rain forest already gone, it is important to save what is left.

"This is America," said Mitch Friedman of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, one of 13 groups that have launched a campaign to win congressional support for an end to logging on public old-growth forests. "We don't hunt whales. We don't spray DDT. And we shouldn't log old growth."

A panel of Northwest economists recently joined a group of environmental scientists in calling for old-growth protection, pointing out that tourism and other recreational use is playing an increasing role in the regional economy. Logging on federal lands already has declined to just 7.5% of all logging in western Oregon and Washington, they noted, and only 3.9% of logs processed from 1990 to 1996 were more than 100 years old.

"While elements of this transformation were forced on the industry, it nonetheless resulted in a fundamental restructuring," the economic analysis said. "The employment, income and price impacts of protecting our remaining old forests are likely to be very small in percentage terms."

Timber industry leaders admit that some public opinion is leaning toward old-growth protection, but they contend few people want all federal forest land locked up. Most, they say, would support a balanced approach that allows logging for fire protection, disease control and as a renewable source of lumber.

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