Industry Fears Environmentalists : Loggers See Spotted Owl as a Harbinger of Doom

Times Staff Writer

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.

Environmentalists have charged that cutting down virgin, or "old growth," timber threatens the northern spotted owl with extinction. Scientists agree that this owl subspecies requires several unusual characteristics of old-growth forests, such as standing dead trees to give it a hunting perch, living trees of various sizes to let it hide from predators and dead logs to house its prey.

Such characteristics normally are not found in managed tree plantations that usually replace old growth once it is cut. Plantations tend to have even-sized trees, few if any dead trees or downed logs, and clean forest floors.

However, research is being conducted to determine if the most critical old-growth characteristics can be successfully mimicked on tree plantations, as well as to see if the owl is naturally adapting to "second growth" on tree farms.

Indeed, research is under way to determine exactly how many northern spotted owls are out there. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently estimated that there are perhaps 3,000 to 4,500--many more than the decade-old estimate of a few hundred birds, but possibly far fewer than what may be seen by large bands of scientists now combing the Pacific Northwest.

The uncertainty over this shy, mottled-brown, 16-inch-high raptor fuels the bitter debate over how far people should go to protect it.

Loggers, from paneled Portland board rooms to noisy Sweet Home mill floors, insist that current court injunctions obtained by preservationists go much too far, considering the large gaps in research about the bird.

Preservationists, including the national Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and local Oregon Natural Resources Defense Council, counter that the owl acts as a proverbial "canary in a coal mine" and its difficulties indicate fundamental problems with the region's entire forest ecosystem.

But if the condition and fate of the northern spotted owl is uncertain, so too is the condition and fate of logging towns such as Sweet Home. Such towns were not part of the "Oregon Comeback" that pulled Portland up from the 1982 recession by diversifying its economy into Pacific Rim trade and electronics.

Sweet Home, like other rural Pacific Northwest mill towns, lives on lumber. The Chamber of Commerce said the nine largest private firms here employ 1,202; 1,000 of those jobs--83%--are in forest products, from lumber and plywood to veneer and shingles.

So far this year, more than 150 of those timber jobs have been lost. Some, such as the 80 at the Pleasant Valley Plywood Inc. plant, will return when raw material prices drop so the mills can again turn a profit. Others, including the 65 at the Sweet Home Sawmill, are gone forever.

However, the impact of this is not easy to gauge.

Scott Woodward of Pleasant Valley Plywood said most of his laid off workers have found other jobs, though many commute to Eugene, 50 miles away. Meanwhile, former Sweet Home Sawmill hands have been hired at a new Willamette Industries facility that custom-finishes timber for shipment to Japan.

There are at least 20 empty storefronts along the two main streets in town, but pro-logging activist Gayle Davis said many closed for reasons unrelated to the spotted owl debate. Some closed during a nine-week millworkers' strike last year, she said, and others have been hurt because industrywide wage cuts force families to shop at discount chain stores in nearby Lebanon or Albany.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of anxiety in Sweet Home. It grows daily, as independent loggers such as Robert L. Rice and Jean Reynolds cut closer to the end of existing contracts. Many have no prospects beyond that.

Reynolds, for example, felled trees for a Simpson Timber Co. mill in Albany that has been permanently closed. The timber Reynolds is cutting was purchased before the Simpson mill closed; the logs are sold on the open market. When she completes her current assignment next month, Reynolds said she also will close down. Her 12 loggers and five truck drivers will be looking for work.

"I've looked around, and everything is real tight," she said. "Some will work at a loss, just to keep up payments on their equipment. I've decided that if I cannot make money (on a job), I won't log it. I should be able to hang on until spring. Maybe there will be something then. Maybe."

Industry supporters say the problem is that so much of what could be logged has been placed off limits by court orders. Rood said federal judges have tied up 40% of all of Linn County's timber sales.

As more loggers are idled, saw log supplies fall and threaten to force mills to close. Sometimes this is because banks are reluctant to loan money unless a mill can show that it will be open long enough to pay it back. At other times, mill operators do not know if they will have anything to cut at all.

"Our lead time in logs is now lower than I have ever seen it," Rood said. He said some Willamette Industries sawmills in Sweet Home have a 10- to 12-day supply waiting on their log decks, or storage areas. Others have 30- to 40-day supplies. A comfortable margin is at least 60 days, he said.

With supplies short, prices have soared. At one salvage sale in Eugene last week, $14.1 million was bid for timber appraised by the Forest Service at $7.6 million. The Northwest Forest Resource Council said such bids are unprofitable and were probably made by companies desperate for cash to service their debts.

"With no Forest Service timber, it is putting pressure on private land and people are cutting timber before it is mature because it is profitable," said Rice, an independent logger.

The council and others believe that the signs indicate that the real crunch will arrive before autumn, and they worry that this winter will be worse than the timber depression of 1982.

That may be hyperbole, but even experienced loggers such as Rice talk about lightening their debt load for a long dry spell.

"What I'm thinking about is what I should be doing right now to prepare," he said, looking up at a $500,000 yarding tower he recently bought to speed up the loading of log trucks in the forest. "Like, maybe I should unload that to someone who can use it."

"But we employ 40 people today--that is 40 families," interjected Rice's son, Chris, who earned a pharmacist's license to give himself an income in the lean times. "If we did that (sell that equipment), we would put 40 people out of work. And this is no time to be out of work."

The uncertainty already is tangible to Sweet Home merchants. They said they have noted a dip in sales of recreational vehicles and other luxury items with monthly payments. Bankers report a decline in consumer loans.

"Whether we get a paycheck from a logging company or not, we all know that we depend for part of our income on the industry," said Cheryl Keenan, branch manager for Key Bank in Sweet Home. "If the timber industry goes, there's not much left for Sweet Home. We are not a very diverse economy."

Sometimes anxiety spills into anger. Many cars in town have anti-owl bumper stickers: "Save a Logger/Eat an Owl" or "I Like Spotted Owls . . . Fried." At the Sportsman's Holiday parade last Saturday, one float used an owl doll to depict its slogan: "I'll Drown Anyone Who Takes My Job."

Pro-logging grass-roots activists wince at such talk.

"We don't really appreciate owl-bashing," Rood said. "People who wear T-shirts about fried owls and things--well, it's funny but it's not really what we are about."

"The owls are not our enemy," Kunzman said. The opposition, he and others make clear, are preservationists who have crippled their industry in court.

"They have their hands around my throat," Kunzman said.

"And my throat," said Conrad, his second-in-command.

"And the throats of everyone in Sweet Home," Kunzman added.

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