Sixty environmental groups, dozens of Oregon sawmills and the nation’s largest timber workers union have forged an unusual alliance to fight a proposal they say would erode a 6-year-old ban on federal log exports.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., says his measure merely would correct unintended consequences of an overly restrictive Agriculture Department regulation. The amendment is included in an appropriations bill scheduled to come to a vote in the Senate this week.
But critics say Gorton’s proposal would gut the law Congress passed in 1991 prohibiting timber companies that buy trees from national forests from exporting their own logs, unprocessed, to more lucrative markets overseas.
Gorton has the backing of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and the Northwest’s biggest timber companies in the ongoing battle with the smaller non-exporting mills of Oregon.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a chief author of the original ban, said the legislative rider on the Interior Department spending bill is “a sneak attack on Northwest timber workers and their communities.”
It “would create a huge loop-hole in the current log export ban, allowing a few huge log-exporting companies to continue to ship their logs overseas and use the profits to outbid domestic lumber mills for scarce federal timber supplies,” DeFazio said Monday.
During the 1980s, one in every four trees logged in national forests was exported unprocessed, primarily to Japan, which pays top dollar for the highest-quality old-growth trees.
The export ban was intended to keep more raw timber in the United States for processing at domestic mills hit hard by sharp reductions in supply. Federal logging in national forests in Oregon and Washington today has dropped to about one-fourth the level it was before the northern spotted owl was declared threatened in 1990.
In addition putting the conservative Gorton and liberal Murray on the same side, the dispute has created rare unity between environmentalists, 41 Oregon saw mills and the 500,000 members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
“Workers suffer when raw logs are exported,” Douglas McCarron, president of the union, said in a letter to DeFazio last week.
“Not only do we lose the commodity itself, we lose the manufacturing jobs that turn the raw logs into lumber used for construction and other value-added incentives like furniture making.”
The original ban included special exceptions called “sourcing areas” for a few companies whose private, exporting operations involved timber separated from the national forests where they bought trees for domestic milling.
Gorton’s proposal seeks to expand the sourcing areas so more companies can buy federal wood for their U.S. mills while shipping wood from their own tree farms overseas, a practice known as “substitution.”
“It provides independent mill owners who do not have their own timberlands with a supply of timber that cannot be exported while also protecting the free movement of private timber,” Murray said.
“Substitution is nothing more than the back-door export of federal timber,” said DeFazio, who is urging opposition to the proposal when the bill goes to a House-Senate conference committee.
In a letter to President Clinton last week, 60 environmental groups warned that every log exported overseas increases the economic and political pressure to log the region’s federal forests.
“Over cutting federal lands resulted in wild salmon and ancient forest-dependent wildlife headed for extinction. Now is not the time to allow for a backdoor to open for cutting down the forests owned by U.S. citizens,” they said.
Steve Thompson of Whitefish, Mont., author of the environmentalists’ letter, said Gorton’s proposal should have been subjected to congressional hearings.
“There was no public debate. It was a backroom deal,” Thompson said Monday.
DeFazio said fellow Oregon Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Furse, Earl Blumenauer, Darlene Hooley are joining him in a letter to Clinton urging him to oppose Gorton’s proposal.
Gorton said DeFazio and the other critics are ignoring another part of his proposal that the Oregon mills support - a permanent ban on exports of raw logs from state-owned lands in Washington state.
Oregon already has a state ban and Washington state exports have been limited in the past, but never before prohibited.
As for the changes in substitution, “those are very, very minor changes that in fact do not change the status quo,” Gorton said.
Jerry Hendricks, executive director of Washington Citizens for World Trade representing several of the large, exporting companies, said the USDA rule is so restrictive companies could not mill their own private timber from outside the sourcing area if the mill was within the sourcing area.
He said Gorton’s proposal is a package deal that includes the full state export ban that many Washington state exporters oppose.
“It is a compromise. There was a lot of give and take in all sectors of the industry,” Hendricks said Monday from Port Angeles, Wash.
Gorton maintains the USDA rules actually are encouraging companies to forgo the purchase of national forest trees that they normally would process domestically.
An aide to Murray said the way USDA issued the regulations, anyone with access to private timber would either be prohibited from buying federal timber or have to elect not to export any of their private timber.
But union leader McCarron said the purpose of the law was to force companies to choose “between supplying their mills with federal timber OR exporting private, unprocessed timber, not both.”
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