Forests in Distress
Sept. 16, 1990
By Kathie Durbin
and Paul Koberstein
Oregonian staff writers
© 1990 Oregonian Publishing Company
Summary: Years of overcutting have taken their toll on Northwest forests. As jobs vanish, the timber industry and Northwest politicians will have themselves — not just the northern spotted owl — to blame. The first part in a six-part series this week and in future special reports, The Oregonian studies the causes, effects and the future.
The story of the Pacific Northwest’s vanishing virgin forests is written on its mountains, in its foothills and along its river valleys.
It’s a story best read from the air, where 140 years of logging has torn the deep green carpet that once covered the land into a tattered quilt of large and small clear-cuts, threaded together by thousands of miles of logging roads.
In the Northwest, the timber industry is running out of places to cut.
The old growth is gone from private lands and carved up or locked up on federal lands, and most second-growth forests planted in the 1950s won’t be ready to harvest for 20 to 30 years.
Over the years, logging practices have contributed to declining fish runs, massive landslides, severe forest fragmentation and ruined streams. Many wildlife species — not just the northern spotted owl — are losing ground.
The timber industry, long the region’s economic mainstay and wellspring of political power, is reaping the consequences of a history of overcutting. Many mill owners say their companies are on the verge of going broke.
January 1989, 48 mills have closed in on, Washington and Idaho — 35 in Oregon alone — and 5,500 workers have lost their jobs.
More layoffs and mill closures appear inevitable as the federal timber supply continues to shrink and as owners of private timberland rapidly deplete their young plantations.
The old-growth debate has captured the nation’s attention. A Cabinet-level panel assigned to craft a Northwest timber program for the next 12 months is struggling to find a consensus.
Now the Northwest is facing basic truths:
*The forests do not go on forever. The land has limits.
*Past and present stewards of the Northwest’s forests have failed in many ways to safeguard and conserve them for the benefit of future generations.
*A powerful new conservation ethic has taken hold, not just in the Pacific Northwest but nationwide. Americans want their forests to produce abundant wildlife and fish runs, pure drinking water and pristine rivers, scenic beauty and wilderness solitude, as well as wood.
Oregon is in the throes of a painful but long-predicted transition from an economy built on the wholesale harvesting of its virgin forests to one more complex and diversified. Washington, which is far less dependent on timber-driven jobs, has nearly completed that transition.
The hard reality confronting this region in the fall of 1990 has been building for half a century.
Loggers with crosscut saws began working their way west through North America’s forests in the early 1800s.
They skinned the white pine forests of Maine, deforested the Midwest and logged the Southern pines. They skipped over the Rocky Mountains in favor of the giant conifers at the continent’s western edge.
From the Olympic Peninsula south to Coos Bay and beyond to the redwoods of Northern California, and up the coastal river valleys, lay the largest and most productive forests of all. Timber barons of the late 19th century went after the most accessible trees first — those in the lowlands, where they could skid huge Douglas fir and Sitka spruce straight downslope to the rivers. Loggers of that era took only the biggest logs and left the rest to choke streams, and seldom replanted.
In the 1920s, two dozen sawmills in Grays Harbor County, Wash., groaned under the bounty of logs. For six straight years, the mills of Grays Harbor cut 1.3 billion board feet of lumber — about one-quarter the volume taken off all Northwest national forests in peak years of the 1980s.
By the 1930s, some lumbermen and Forest Service officials already were worrying about what would happen when the private lands were logged out.
Record cutting continued through World War II. But in the midst of the post-war home-building boom, with the end of their old growth in sight, companies that had opposed the sale of national forest timber turned to the public lands to feed their mills.
In 1952, timber companies logged a record 9.8 billion board feet of timber from public and private lands in Oregon.
The rate of cutting on federal forests climbed throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Thousands of miles of logging roads snaked higher and higher into the Coast Range, Cascades, Olympics and Siskiyous.
By the early 1980s, virtually all of the lush, low-elevation old growth on private land had been leveled. Only fragments of these coastal forests remain in Olympic National Park and isolated groves on national forest and Bureau of Land Management land.
Scientists define an old-growth forest as an unlogged, natural forest with centuries-old stands of large conifers as well as younger trees, trees of at least two species, an uneven canopy, broken tree tops, standing dead snags and an abundance of fallen, decaying logs.
At most, perhaps 12 percent to 15 percent of the old-growth forest that covered western Oregon and Washington before logging began remains. The Forest Service estimates it has 4 million acres of old growth west of the Cascades. The Wilderness Society, which has done the most recent and comprehensive surveys, says only 2.3 million acres is left on westside public lands.
Some old growth is protected in wilderness areas, national parks and other preserves, but most is on lands dedicated to timber harvest.
Over the past 10 years, loggers have cut the old growth at the rate of 71,000 acres per year on Oregon and Washington national forests alone. Between 1987 and 1989, purchasers of federal timber cut a record 20 billion board feet of timber from federally managed forests in Oregon and Washington.
What’s left and available is not enough to feed the 347 sawmills, plywood mills and veneer mills in Oregon and Washington.
“Those mills weren’t put there just to mill national forest timber,” said Max Peterson, retired U.S. Forest Service chief. “They were put there to mill from state and private lands too.”
The record pace of logging on public lands since 1986 has accelerated the loss of old growth for the northern spotted owl. And it has set the stage for an abrupt drop in timber supply for Northwest mills.
Today, the federal timber pipeline is at its lowest level in 20 years; only 12 to 18 months’ supply is under contract, compared to about three years’ supply in the mid-1980s.
“We’re at the lowest point ever in recent times,” said Chris West, vice president of the Northwest Forestry Association.
Meanwhile, driven by a hot export market, private companies are cutting second-growth plantations at a pace that cannot be sustained for more than two more years.
By 1992, the cut on private lands will decline by 1.5 billion board feet, according to the Forest Service. That’s enough to keep 50 mills going and 15,000 workers busy for a year if the logs were milled at home.
In March, Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson told a House Agriculture subcommittee what even the industry concedes now. “We know that the unusually high harvest levels of the past three years in the Pacific Northwest cannot continue.”
Within weeks, Congress and the Bush administration probably will approve dramatic cuts in timber sales for national forests in Oregon and Washington for the next 12 months.
New forest plans call for reduced harvests on virtually all Northwest forests through the end of the century.
And even deeper cuts, driven by the federal Endangered Species Act and its requirement to protect the northern spotted owl, are sure to lie ahead.
Although the owl has come to symbolize the old-growth preservation campaign, it is not the cause of the timber-supply crisis that Northwest mills face. s plight is a symptom of how logging has transformed the forest landscape. Its diminishing numbers are evidence that the land has limits.
“We’re not up against the spotted owl,” said Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane physician and noted environmentalist.
“We’re up against the Pacific Ocean.”
For nearly 15 years, federal forest agencies, the timber industry and Northwest elected officials have tried to postpone the inevitable.
Congressional efforts to boost federal timber harvests began in the 1970s when Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., and other Northwest lawmakers won legislation allowing the national forests to violate their longstanding policy of cutting only as much timber each year as they could cut for perpetuity.
To gain passage of this so-called “departure” from sustained-yield levels, the lawmakers overrode objections from key sponsors of the National Forest Management Act, including the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.
“Somebody asked Senator Humphrey what this departure meant,” recalled Max Peterson, who served as Forest Service chief from 1979 to 1987. “He said what it meant was that the private landowners had overcut their own land and now wanted the privilege of overcutting the public lands.”
“I was looking for flexibility,” Hatfield said. “I’m looking at the forest regardless of private or public. There were instances where if there had been more flexibility in any one year, we wouldn’t be locked into a procedure that would result in shortages.”
Northwest lawmakers and key Reagan administration officials pressured the U.S. Forest Service to keep high volumes of timber flowing to the region’s mills, even after the 1982 timber recession when billions of board feet of federal timber under contract stood uncut in Northwest forests.
Purchasers couldn’t afford to cut and manufacture it after the house-construction market collapsed under the weight of high interest rates.
The 1984 Timber Contract Modification Act allowed timber purchasers to pay a penalty fee and cancel their high-priced contracts. After the law took effect in 1985, they bought back the same timber at a small fraction of the original price.
The timber buy-backs lowered the overall volume of timber sold in the 1980s but also flooded the market with cheap federal timber. Timber harvests off Oregon and Washington national forests climbed toward record levels in the mid-1980s as the economy began its slow recovery.
Supervisors of all major timber forests in Oregon and Washington met with Peterson, the Forest Service chief, in May 1983 at Portland’s Benson Hotel to warn him that new forest plans would call for a sharp drop in federal timber harvests — and to urge gradual reductions instead.
“The message was that . . . we ought to start doing it now and prepare the political climate so it wouldn’t be a big surprise when the plans came out,” said Dick Pfilf, retired Mount Hood National Forest supervisor.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of federal biologists, geologists, soil scientists and hydrologists warned that the forests could not continue to supply all the timber Northwest mills want without seriously harming the environment.
They began to go public with their concerns about the effects of logging on fish and wildlife, water quality and fragile soils.
Soils scientists warned that logging and road-building were chancy at best, illegal at worst, on some steep, fragile soils in the Siskiyou Mountains and on rain-saturated hillsides in the Oregon Coast Range.
Fisheries biologists said timber practices were filling salmon streams with silt and drastically curtailing fish runs.
Hydrologists worried that intensive logging and road-building in certain watersheds — on virtually every national forest — had reached their limits and that any more would threaten both fisheries and water quality.
And wildlife biologists cautioned that the fragmentation of old-growth forests was carving up habitat for a number of little-known animals, including one the Forest Service had designated as an indicator species for the health of the forests themselves — the northern spotted owl.
Environmentalists, looking for ways to protect pieces of the forest that remained in their natural state, listened — and acted. But when they began winning court injunctions to halt timber sales, Hatfield and Rep. Les AuCoin, D-Ore., responded by pushing legislation through congressional appropriations committees that overrode the federal courts and allowed logging to proceed.
A review of congressional hearings testimony and interviews with key government officials shows that political pressure from the Northwest congressional delegation forced federal forest agencies to cut more timber than the agencies deemed prudent and sustainable.
From 1986 through 1989, AuCoin and Hatfield used their positions on key appropriations committees to boost the cut higher than even the Forest Service had requested.
The agency went along — even though its leaders knew that the cut would have to drop sharply to comply with environmental laws once new national forest plans were in place.
AuCoin defended the higher cut levels of recent years, saying he wanted to keep the price of Northwest timber competitive with Canadian imports.
“We never had testimony before my committee that in the professional judgment of the Forest Service, it was being asked to produce more from the forests than it could environmentally and scientifically sustain,” AuCoin said.
Meanwhile, the Reagan administration proposed sharp cuts in research to protect the environment, improve reforestation and conduct critical forest inventories. In 1981, Congress gave the Forest Service $128 million for research. Over the next five years, the administration proposed budget reductions of about 30 percent. Congress added research money back, but by 1986 the agency’s research budget still was lower than during the last year of the Carter administration.
There is little evidence that Northwest lawmakers gave much consideration to the environmental concerns that spurred suits over the northern spotted owl until environmentalists went to court to force more federal protection for the owl.
“If you think the battle over old-growth forests is a tough one, and it certainly is not over yet, wait until you begin hearing such terms of art as `long-term productivity’ or `biological diversity,’ ” Hatfield warned the Association of O&C Counties in a Dec. 2, 1988, speech. “I’ve begun to hear them, and it is clear these phrases reflect a new, sophisticated, legalistic approach by those who make preservation at all costs their exclusive emphasis.”
Hatfield remains deeply bitter toward environmentalists. He says they lack compassion for the timber workers who will pay the price for protecting the owl.
“They’re not dealing with timber policies, they’re executing people,” Hatfield said. “I can generate more compassion for people than owls, and I consider myself an environmentalist.”
At the state level, forestry, water and wildlife agencies have failed to prevent damage caused by logging on private lands — even as environmental effects from overcutting have multiplied.
Fish and Wildlife Department officials say salmon in many coastal streams, especially in Curry County, are threatened even by legal logging practices.
In most cases, natural resource agencies have failed to fund the basic research necessary to gauge logging’s effect on other resources. Biologists say recent studies on the Oregon coast show the adverse effects can be severe, and that more research is needed.
“We’ve suspected for a long time that logging hurts fish,” said Chris Frissell, an Oregon State University research biologist. “Now we have proof.’
The Oregon Department of Forestry has taken few steps to monitor environmental damage caused by logging. A water-temperature monitoring program is in its infancy and only 15 rivers are being tested. The agency employs but one staff wildlife biologist, no fish biologists and no hydrologists.
Instead, the Forestry Department relies on the understaffed Department of Fish and Wildlife for biological advice. But on certain key issues, the Forestry Department has ignored that advice. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Department advocates protection for small trout on private lands. It would ban the removal of streamside trees that provide shade and nutrients to the river in areas where trout spawn, rear and migrate.
The Forestry Department, however, says it’s not necessary to protect trout less than 6 inches long.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for monitoring water quality in the state, has not reviewed the compliance of private logging operations with the federal Clean Water Act since 1985.
The agency has begun a long-delayed review of the state’s Forest Practices Act, said DEQ Director Fred Hansen. He said the DEQ will determine whether the act generally protects fish and water quality, but will leave enforcement of specific problems to the Forestry Department.
In Washington, a coalition of industry, environmental and government leaders is working to address environmental problems and mill closures caused by rapid deforestation.
Massive clear-cuts several square miles in size are visible from major highways throughout Western Oregon and Washington. handiwork of Cavenham Forest Industries Inc. is visible from U.S. 26 between Portland and Cannon Beach, while giant clear-cuts by Plum Creek Timber Co. have provoked an outcry from travelers on Interstate 90 between Seattle and Snoqualmie Pass.
In the last five years, a new breed of timber company — exemplified by Points West Timber Co. of West Linn and the Maxxam Group of Houston, Texas, — has arrived on the scene. These and other companies buy up private timberlands, clear large tracts all at once, sell the logs at high prices for export and rake in quick profits.
Points West is liquidating timber it owns in southwestern Oregon to make payments on a $21 million loan. Maxxam, which bought Pacific Lumber Co. of Scotia, Calif., in 1986, has doubled production to repay $795 million that it borrowed to acquire the company.
A high demand for Douglas fir in Asia has fueled the feverish logging.
Many companies, such as Medco in Southern Oregon, are feeding trees as young as 40 years to their hungry mills. This increasingly common practice of felling forests before they reach their potential will make future timber shortages and job losses even worse.
Many companies, such as Medco in Southern Oregon, are feeding young trees to their hungry mills.
“We’re cutting our little trees because there are no large ones left,” said Medco President Robert Kellso.
“We’re acting like farmers eating their seed corn,” says Gary Lettman, an Oregon Department of Forestry economist.
In British Columbia, where the provincial government oversees public forest lands, liquidation of public timber is proceeding at a rate that far outpaces private timberland cutting in Oregon and Washington. Thirty percent more timber was cut in British Columbia in 1987 than was sold in the entire U.S. national forest system.
Canadian environmentalists, who have few laws and little political clout to slow the deforestation of British Columbia, have turned to the international conservation community for support.
Many foresters have begun to challenge the long-accepted wisdom that clear-cutting is the only appropriate harvesting method on most Northwest forests. Evidence is mounting that other ways of logging are more suitable on some of the Northwest’s forests and soils and more compatible with preserving habitat for wildlife, including the northern spotted owl.
“If we were doing the right kind of forestry, we wouldn’t have a spotted owl issue,” said Roy H. Keene, president of the non-profit Public Forest Foundation in Eugene. “The clear-cut is the problem.”
Public attitudes about the value of the Northwest’s natural resources have undergone a dramatic shift in recent years. New national forest plans, based on 10 years of public involvement, will shift the emphasis from timber sales to recreation, river protection and wildlife preservation on forests such as the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie east of Seattle, which gets 18 million visitors a year.
“The relative value of the national forests is increasing dramatically. That’s why the controversy is increasing dramatically,” said Doug McWilliams, supervisor of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie.
For many newcomers, the forests are the attraction that makes life in the Northwest unique.
“It’s a total lifestyle that the forests offer to them that keeps them here,” says Kate Marx, a U.S. Forest Service marketing specialist who has studied city-dwellers’ attitudes toward national forests. “When you talk about another half-million people coming here over the next 15 years, they’re not coming for logging jobs. They’re coming for the quality of life.”
In the Northwest, the campaign to save the old-growth forests has been waged by a core group of politically savvy, technologically proficient environmentalists. They bring to their mission sophisticated computer skills and a shrewd grasp of forest economics, timber politics and environmental laws — as well as fierce commitment.
In two years, they have forced the old-growth issue into the national arena. They are winning the public opinion war nationally in publications from National Geographic to The New Yorker.
Although the timber industry’s political victories stretch back to the early days of statehood in Oregon and Washington, the industry s been unable so far to successfully counter this new campaign.
“I think our biggest single mistake was in failing to come outside ourselves after the recession, speaking out to the public about who we are and what we stand for,” said Mark Rey, executive director of the American Forest Resources Council. “We failed to tell our story throughout a good part of the 1980s.”
“We forgot we are the one agency most dependent on a public charter for doing business,” Rey said. “We are the one industry that requires a raw material that people write poems about.”