Should loggers see old forest for trees?
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KAI RYSSDAL: When the federal government wants to change something in all the millions of pages of its rules and regulations, it has to give the public a chance to comment. Usually for three months -- 90 days.
But this week the Bureau of Land Management took the unusual step of adding a month to the comment period on a controversial change it wants to make. The White House has plans to dramatically increase the amount of logging allowed on some federal lands in the Pacific Northwest.
Environmentalists are crying foul, but logging towns are seeing green. Jeremy Hobson reports.
JEREMY HOBSON: Logging towns in the heart of timber country see this as the dawn of a new day. Ever since the Northern Spotted Owl was placed on the endangered species list in 1990, logging has been drastically cut back.
Chris West of the timber industry group the American Forest Resource Council says since then, logging companies have been limited to a small slice of federal forest land:
CHRIS WEST: The area's growing 10 billion board feet. We are only harvesting a billion board feet, or 10 percent.
That limit was set during the Clinton Administration. But the industry sued in 1994, saying the government wasn't making all the land it promised available. And when the Bush Administration came into office, the industry got a settlement. Environmentalist Steve Pedery says there wasn't much disagreement between Administration officials and Timber companies.
STEVE PEDERY: It was like two foxes discussing how to manage the henhouse.
Pedery is conservation director of the group Oregon Wild. He calls the settlement a sweetheart deal for the timber industry that will ramp up logging with little regard for old-growth trees or endangered fish and wildlife.
PEDERY: The logging industry is a lot like the auto industry in Michigan -- the logging industry made a lot of bad decisions over the last 20 or 30 years and really hurt a lot of people. And what they're trying to do today is repeat those mistakes, and hope they get a different outcome.
The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, is drafting a new forest management plan to implement the terms of the settlement. The BLM's Alan Hoffmeister says the federal government is just trying to follow the law -- although he says the government's priorities have changed under the Bush Administration:
ALAN HOFFMEISTER: Do the minimum you have to do to meet the law, to avoid causing harm to species listed under the endangered species act.
That's welcome news to the timber industry, and it's welcome news to many Oregon counties which rely heavily on timber payments for services as basic as local schools and libraries. In Douglas County, residents like Galen Farnsworth see a light at the end of the tunnel.
GALEN FARNSWORTH: IWe live on a street that needs to be widened. They don't have the money to do that with, and they said if they did have the money, they would do it. And there's a few things like that that really would be helped if we had a better economy.
And, says Douglas County Commissioner Marilyn Kittelman, it goes beyond road widening. She says the region has faced huge job losses and everything that follows. She points to a jump in suicides, divorces and drug addiction since the Northern Spotted Owl was placed on the endangered species list and logging had to be cut back.
MARILYN KITTELMAN: We were a healthy community, where people could get out of school with little or no education, go out, work hard, support their family and have an excellent lifestyle -- we can't do that now. What we have now are very few jobs that are available, and the good kids have to leave the area most of the time to go get a job elsewhere.
But environmentalist Steve Pedery says it's time for the counties to find what he calls a sustainable future. He's OK with some logging -- but only in areas that have been harvested before.
PEDERY: And we can't just look at a 400-year-old Douglas Fir -- a tree that's older than the Constitution -- and say that tree's primary value is 2-by-4s and toilet paper.
Pedery and other environmentalists are making their case to the Bureau of Land Management right now. The BLM is in the midst of a public comment period for the new forest management plan. Environmentalists say they're willing to sue to block the final plan -- opening yet another battle in the Timber Wars.
I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.