It takes a tree-hugger to raze a forest

Collin Levey / Seattle Times editorial columnist


Seattle, WA - Few things say summer in the Northwest like the image of downy youngsters with laptops chaining themselves to old-growth trees. So on Monday, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman officially inaugurated the protest season, announcing in Idaho a plan to reopen parts of the federal forestlands for road building.

The Associated Press called the move "a Bush administration proposal to boost logging." New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, primping for the Democratic National Convention, stormed that the plan was "another abdication of the federal government's responsibilities in stewardship."

In fact, the plot would just overturn a giveaway penned by Bill Clinton in one of his last days in office proclaiming some 59 million acres of federal forestland off-limits to any road building. Under the new plan, states and governors would be given the power to reconsider: Those who wished to maintain the status quo would petition the federal government to maintain the roadless rule within their borders.

So what are the Democratic governors so upset about? Richardson and Oregon's Gov. Ted Kulongoski will be empowered to keep their pristine tinderboxes under a signature of their own. But judging by their responses, it's not as appealing to support radical environmental policies when your office is on the line such things are more conven-iently accomplished through presidential fiat than persuading voters.

"The idea that governors would want to jump headfirst into the political snake pit of managing national forests is laughable," Phillip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust said recently. Or here's Washington's own Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island. "Shifting the responsibility of federal forests to the states is a risky and absurd policy," he fumed, "that will cede the management of federal lands to the whims of individual governors."

Governors in states that have seen communities devastated by forest fires and the closing of local logging operations and sawmills since the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan may not consider the issue quite so whimsical. Over its own brief lifetime, the roadless designation has been the font of numerous lawsuits and regulatory murkiness in the Western states that are home to some 97 percent of the areas included.

Green-group rhetoric maintains that the new plan is just more business nose-rubbing with the Bush administration that the proposal represents a bald-faced subsidy to Big Timber companies. But economically speaking, the opposite may be true: If logging results from giving states a say in the management of federal forests, it's more likely to benefit the smaller players. "Timber companies are basically the loser," points out Bruce Lippke of the University of Washington. "More timber on the market will just mean a lower price."

Environmentalists' emotional pleas are usually on behalf of the skyscraper trees. But "the money these days is in medium-growth trees," says Eric Montague, director of environmental policy at the Washington Policy Institute. "All the mills to handle old-growth trees have gone out of business and uncertainty in the marketplace makes it unlikely companies would invest in restoring those facilities."

Although it's the Weyerhaeusers of the world that present the biggest bull's-eye for tall-tree activists, the worst devastation in the national forests in recent years has come from the environmentalists' own policies. "Forests are burning billions of board feet in smoke and ash because we're not taking care of it," Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council explains.

Since the '80s, when a hands-off policy on forest management became the trend, many national parks have been torched by devastating wildfires, like those that burned a hole the size of Rhode Island in Southern Oregon two years ago. In the refracted heat of the moment, the fauna on the left side of the aisle, including Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, were racing to approve expedited thinning and to curtail environmental regulations gone awry. Now, objections have returned even to the cutting of dead trees.

John Kerry has been leaving his own trail of breadcrumbs through this issue. In recent days, he has been sidling up to hunting and sportsmen groups to put a middle-of-the-road cast on his wilderness positions. It's easy enough for Eastern urban elites to wax indignant at the despoiling of their vacation landscape. But there aren't enough rabbit holes in the forest to hide Westerners from the economic realities that must inform the balance between protection and sensible use.

With the help of the media, groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have been crowned as the only legitimate voices of the forest. Tree-sits these days resemble a summer camp, with young activists e-mailing dispatches on the number of days since they last had a shower.

No doubt that will effectively deter the evil loggers, but as the underlying environmental policies go awry, voters will look for more-sensible solutions and more-localized accountability for the management of public lands. Hysterical missives notwithstanding, there isn't much of a contingent out there for paving Yellowstone. Let's just be sure the kids are unchained by the time fire season starts.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at



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