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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Clinton's Missing Timber Plan

Air Date: Week of

As scientists and White House advisors work towards a forest plan for the Northwest, both the timber industry and environmentalists worry that the final product will please no one. Henry Sessions of Portland, Oregon reports on the long wait for Clinton's forest plan.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Since April's Forest Summit conference in Portland, Oregon, the Clinton Administration has been working on a plan. The President promises it will protect old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest without causing undue hardship for people who earn their living turning trees into lumber. Mr. Clinton also has predicted that both factions in the long-running dispute will be angered by his decision. He may be right about that. As Henry Sessions reports from Portland, previews of the plan in advance of its official unveiling have already sparked some hot words.

SESSIONS: President Clinton promised three things at the one-day Forest Conference in Portland - to obey existing environmental laws, to find a balance between environmental and timber interests in Northwest forests, and to have a plan ready by June 2nd. He's already missed that deadline, and many of those involved in the issue believe he won't be able to reconcile the other two promises.

DEFAZIO: I'm worried that the President could get himself back into a position where he can't deliver on something that is truly protective of old-growth and ecosystem values but also has the least impact on economic and social values.

SESSIONS: Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio represents one of the most timber-rich districts in the country. He's worried the scientific panel working on the forest plan will say that, in order to protect the spotted owl and follow existing environmental laws, timber harvest levels will have to be reduced to as little as one-fifth of their peak levels in the mid-1980's. The minimum cut level the industry could accept is more than twice that. Most members of the Northwest Congressional delegation stand behind the industry, and they've pushed the White House for more creative scientific forest management solutions. Among those, a newly-crafted plan that would allow selective logging over a much wider area than current options allow. Adopting such a plan might also mean the government would have to change key environmental laws, such as the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act. Andy Kerr, conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, the state's leading environmental group, says the new scientific options may just be a creative way to circumvent current laws.

KERR: It's of concern that the White House is asking that new alternatives be developed by the scientific community, and concern that those alternatives will not comply with law, so why should they consider them? We think that the minimum protection is the environmental laws that are on the books already, and we shouldn't go below that.

SESSIONS: Kerr's group was responsible for many of the lawsuits that have shut down millions of acres of Northwest forests to logging. He and other environmentalists worry the struggling Clinton administration won't have the political will to stick to the laws as they're written, and that the forest plan will end up being just another administration turnaround.

KERR: Environmentalists are damned worried that Bill Clinton will do a 180 on forests as he's done on Haiti, gays in the military, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, the grazing and mining fees. We're very worried about that.

SESSIONS: But what might be another Clinton flip-flop to Kerr would make good sense to the timber industry. Ralph Saperstein is vice-president of the Northwest Forestry Association, which represents mill owners who depend on Federal timber.

SAPERSTEIN: He said his proposal would make both sides angry, and we personally revel in that declaration because thus far in the debate, which has gone on for five years now, only one side has been angry and that's been the forest industry. And so we're looking for a balanced plan that, for certain, we're not going to be pleased with, and we may even be angry about, but if it also provides some balance so that the environmental community is upset, maybe that's the position's strength.

SESSIONS: A key player in the debate is House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, a long-time backer of the timber industry. Foley's support was crucial in getting President Clinton's economic plan through the House. Now Clinton may find it hard to sell Foley on a forest plan that the timber industry doesn't like. Environmentalists say despite Foley, they have enough votes lined up in Congress to kill proposed changes to key environmental laws. However the fight in Congress plays out, a long, bruising battle over forests may end up being one more political strike against an already struggling Administration. For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland.



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