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A Hollow Victory for Old-Growth Camp

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

“I think the public probably wasn’t asked the right questions,” Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore., said of the recent polling. “They should have been asked, ‘Do you know how much of the national forests are already set aside? Do you understand . . . over 50% of the national forests are at high risk due to fires because of the overcrowding?’ I think if the questions were addressed in the right context, you’d probably get a different response.”

The poll conducted by the independent firm of David, Hibbits & McCaig included 600 registered voters in Washington and Oregon. It asked if they would support protection of old-growth forests on public land from logging, as well as at what age forests should be considered old growth. Overall, 70% said they strongly supported or somewhat supported protection, while 25% opposed it.

Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner, conceded that the conservation message has made inroads, even in a region that once called itself the timber capital of the world.

“Over the course of the last 12 to 15 years, the environmental community has done a very good job of engaging the public on an emotional basis relative to old-growth forests, without telling the complete story in terms of management . . . that the buildup of fuel on the forest floor has resulted in the destruction of old-growth forests by fire,” he said.

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“Do you want to protect old growth? Do you want to protect the harp seal? Do you want to protect the whales? Well, sure. But it needs to be looked at in a lot of depth, and people seldom do.”

The old-growth protection campaign has been controversial, even in the environmental community. Some conservationists fear that legislation being drafted by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will protect old growth at the expense of logging on other forests.

“We really need to stop logging on national forests [entirely]. Just protecting the old growth isn’t enough,” said Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project.

Wyden emphasized that any legislation would have to include “a substantial and appropriate thinning program” to manage other forests against fire and disease.

In Douglas County, 70% of the timber that feeds the mills now comes from outside the county. Court restrictions have halted most old-growth logging here.

“We can design forestry to produce old trees on a very regular basis,” said Jerry Keck, resource manager for D.R. Johnson Lumber Co. “People forget that trees grow. We cut them because it’s a renewable resource.”

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The Umpqua River valley east of Roseburg is blanketed with private tree plantations, giving way to the majestic old-growth stands of the Umpqua National Forest. The Diamond Lake district high in the hills, where Boise a few years ago completed a major logging project, is pockmarked with clear cuts.

In a recent flight up the valley, James Johnston of the Cascadia Wildlands Project pointed down to the jagged, multicolored hues of old growth standing among the homogenous stretches of logged and replanted forest.

Boise has pledged not to log any old-growth trees in stands of 5,000 acres or greater. But very little of the old growth left in this valley is in tracts that large, Johnston said.

“The only kind of old-growth that’s going to be protected [by the company’s recent decision] is the kind . . . that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

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