Timber companies, environmentalists and unions, traditional foes in debates over the nation’s resources, are combining to oppose President Reagan’s deficit-cutting plan to allow raw-log exports from national forests.
Local governments along the West Coast are also lining up against the plan, which could help reduce the nation’s trade and budget deficits by abandoning a 20-year congressional ban blocking foreign buyers from bidding on timber grown on federal lands.
The proposal to lift the log-export ban is a part of Reagan’s proposed 1989 budget, which includes federal log exports among dozens of innovative ways to raise federal revenue without raising taxes. A Forest Service spokesman said he expects President-elect Bush to embrace the idea as well.
The ban was initiated by former Sen. Wayne L. Morse, an Oregon Democrat, as a way to assure some log supply for lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest that were threatened by the growing export of uncut timber to Japan and other Asian nations.
In addition to protecting their own millers, importing countries prefer raw logs because they can be custom cut to each country’s size and quality standards.
However, since 1968 only private timberland owners have been free to export logs, and exporters are not allowed to bid on federal timber sales. Because of these restrictions, federal timber can sell for 25% less than private logs.
Federal officials believe that lifting the export ban will boost prices for federal stumpage, or standing trees, and should add $100 million a year to the Treasury. U.S. Forest Service budget analyst Bob Gordon said expanded exports also should trim the nation’s trade deficit.
Opponents argue that the plan is just as likely to force private timberland owners to lower their prices to compete with the higher-quality wood generally available in national forests. If, on the other hand, prices do rise, mills in the West, from which most exports likely would come, would be at a competitive disadvantage in the domestic market.
“It seems to be unsupportable all the way around, but for that price tag” and the benefits to the Treasury, said Kevin Lynch, an aide to Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.).
AuCoin, who has said the proposal could cost 2,500 jobs in Oregon alone, is one of several congressmen from the Pacific Northwest who sit on the House and Senate appropriations committees, which would have to approve the plan.
Ted W. Nelson, vice president at the Weyerhaeuser Co. in Washington, said a sudden lifting of the export ban could cause “serious disruptions” all along the West Coast.
“We’re faced with a shortage of logs now for mills,” he said, speaking of the lumber industry in general. “We have mills that are going out of business right now because they cannot find a reliable and adequate supply of logs.”
Ray Doerner of the Assn. of O&C; Counties, a collection of local governments in rural Oregon counties formerly owned by the Oregon and California Railroad, said promises of more local tax revenue from greater exports would not make up for the wrenching dislocations that widespread mill closings would have.
“I cannot believe this is going to go through,” he said. “It impacts too many people locally.”
It also could affect home buyers, remodelers and others throughout the West, he added. “The shortage of raw material here would boost the price of the end product,” Doerner said. “My own opinion is that everyone loses.”
Gordon of the Forest Service conceded that Reagan’s plan “is going to hurt domestic processing,” but pointed out that it would help people in the export field, such as shippers and longshoremen.
“We don’t know really what all of the substitution effects are,” he said. “We don’t yet have any models on all of that.”