Getting This Issue Out of the Woods : A truce between timber industry and environmentalists

Years of trying to reform the way the timber industry operates in California seem about to yield some bright green dividends.

Weeks of intensive negotiations apparently are close to breaking a logjam between environmental groups and the timber industry on important changes in the pattern of planting and harvesting trees in the state. By Thursday, in fact, they were so close to agreement that state Sen. Barry Keene, Democratic majority leader who represents five northern counties, introduced legislation to write the final terms into law.

The final terms are likely to include an end to clear-cutting, the sparing of hundreds of acres of ancient coastal forest and a formula for linking planting and harvesting to produce what is called "sustained yield."

An important bonus will be to remind Californians that they can influence policy when they speak out at the ballot box.

In this case, Californians influenced policy even though they narrowly failed to approve an initiative last November to change the rules for forestry in the state.

It helped that Gov. Pete Wilson campaigned as an environmental candidate and influenced a decision to spare some 500 acres of old redwoods even before he was sworn in.

Louisiana-Pacific Corp. stole a bit of the thunder of the near-truce in timber last week with an announcement that it will phase out clear-cutting of timber in California over the next few years.

But it was Sierra Pacific Industries, the state's largest timber company, that made it possible to think in terms of a truce between lumbermen and environmentalists. The Arcata firm took the Sierra Club and six other groups seriously enough to get into intense discussion--sometimes lasting 16 hours a day--about ways to meet environmental goals without savaging the timber business.

One important element that seems to have helped bring bargaining to the point where Keene felt he could safely introduce his bills is that environmentalists are willing to give timber companies time to make the transition from present practices to more environmentally sound ways of doing business.

The goals will not change. Clear-cutting, in which acre upon acre is stripped bare of trees in one swipe of the chain saws, will be banned. Rivers will be protected from silt caused by erosion. The state's Board of Forestry, which issues permits for harvesting trees, will be reconstituted to increase its public membership.

For the long run, the most important change is likely to be a requirement for sustained yield in which mature trees cannot be harvested faster than seedlings are planted elsewhere to take their place.

A second Keene bill would authorize a bond issue for the 1992 ballot to finance the purchase of 3,000 acres of ancient redwoods in southern Humboldt County to spare the forest and its wildlife from logging.

For a state that faces a $10-billion deficit over the next two years, the timing could be better. But the bonds would not have to be sold until Sacramento is financially respectable again. And it would be a shame to lose momentum toward forestry goals that once seemed so far away and suddenly seem so wonderfully near.

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