Claiming they have been forced to the wall by a corrupt political system and an unresponsive federal government, the Inland Empire Public Lands Council on Wednesday called for an end to commercial logging on national forests.
“There is no technology to replace the services our national forests provide - clean water, wild fish, fresh air, abundant wildlife and the relief people need from the hectic pace of their daily lives,” said Sara Folger of the Lands Council. “Future generations will not ask us why we called for an end to commercial logging on our national forests, they will ask us why we waited so long.”
Other environmental groups seem to be distancing themselves from the Lands Council announcement. “It’s not something our organization is going to support at this point,” said Larry McLaud of the Idaho Conservation League.
Industry sources, meanwhile, say the idea is flawed and foolish. Other people outside of the fray share that skeptical assessment.
But forest historian Paul Hirt says what was ridiculous just three years ago is a looming possibility. “Most of the good timber has been harvested, so there’s little left to fight over,” said the Washington State University professor.
“The national forest timber program is one-fifth of the size it was 10 years ago and there’s no indication it’s going back up to the levels of the 1970s or 1980s.”
The bottom line is that the economic stakes are lower so the possibility is much greater, Hirt said.
Environmental groups have given up after five decades of trying to persuade the Forest Service to log more sensitively, he said. And, because 20 years of public opinion polls show that voters don’t care if national forest logging ends, the idea has some chance.
The Sierra Club first issued the call for the end to national forest logging after a vote of its membership two years ago. Environmentalists and historians point out that the move didn’t cause any serious backlash.
But it also didn’t significantly change the federal timber program, others note.
“It’s not a well-thought-out strategy for ‘how do your control something you think is not in the public interest,”’ said Robert Wolf, a retired analyst for the Congressional Research Service. “To me it’s more of a common-sense fiscal issue.”
It doesn’t seem to matter how much timber the Forest Service sells, “they lose money on 90 percent of it,” Wolf said. “The Forest Service hasn’t figured out how to solve the problem of selling timber in a rational way.”
Environmentalists are calling for an end to logging without acknowledging that it’s declining anyway, he said. National forest logging dropped from 12 billion board feet a year in 1987 to 3.7 billion board feet a year in 1996, Wolf said.
The Lands Council has a membership of about 1,000, primarily in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, and an annual budget of about $400,000.
It made its announcement Wednesday near the gates of the lumber mill closed by Crown Pacific in 1994. Over the roar of passing automobiles, Lands Council staff said conversion of the site to an industrial park is proof the region can survive the shift to an economy without the timber industry.
Local mills rely on national forests for only 15 percent of their timber supply, and across the country the national forests supply only about 4 percent of the wood fiber appetite, said Mark Solomon, executive director of the Lands Council. So ending federal timber harvest won’t be fatal to the industry.
Meanwhile, Solomon said, the Forest Service ignores public calls for more environmentally wise timber harvest and Congress weakens the laws that might ensure the job is done right. The problem is that the timber industry has a stranglehold on Congress, Solomon added.
“Judging by the amount currently invested in ‘renting’ Idaho Sen. Larry Craig by the Potlatch Corp., there is probably a seat being kept warm for him on their board when he leaves,” he said.
Potlatch and Craig staffers laughed at the statement.
“It’s ludicrous to think you can shape a candidate with campaign donations,” said Mike Frandsen, a Craig spokesman. “They have the cause and effect exactly backwards.”
The timber industry donates money to Sen. Craig’s campaigns, Frandsen said, because they like his longtime, “deeply held beliefs.”
Potlatch Corp. spokesman Mike Sullivan also dismissed the notion. Members of the board are chosen for their business acumen, he emphasized.
Beyond the accusations, however, the industry finds several problems with eliminating national forest harvest. Harvest is part of a “healthy, growing, productive forest,” Sullivan said. “We’d argue in favor of management for those reasons.”
But “we don’t buy public timber any more because it’s not available,” Sullivan said. Instead, the company is almost totally self-sufficient.
Crown Pacific’s Bob Hess says the Lands Council is underestimating the amount of timber federal lands supply to area mills. The Bonners Ferry mill, for example, has looked to national forests for as much as 30 percent of its trees, he said.
And if there’s none available? “Nobody knows until you face those situations,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Federal logging