Look who’s in the conflict business now

  • Paul Larmer

  As I read through the usual glut of e-mail press releases from environmental groups the other day, I came across one announcing a lawsuit against an Idaho logging project that is being offered by the Bureau of Land Management. Nothing unusual there: Though logging has diminished in the West over the last decade, the projects coming from the federal government still generate a lot of controversy.

But the headline caught me off guard: "Groups Seek to Improve Logging Project, Protect Clean Water."

The release from the Idaho Conservation League and the Friends of the Clearwater went on to say that logging is appropriate in the area, but needs to be done right to protect clean water and habitat for wildlife. "We made every effort to improve this logging project," ICL’s John Oppenheimer says. "Unfortunately, the BLM chose not to listen."

Well, jeez, when did environmental groups wielding lawsuits start talking about appropriate logging? Was this just spin to counter bad publicity from the summer’s wildfires? I called ICL’s director, Rick Johnson, a veteran of the timber wars in the Pacific Northwest, and got more of the same: "There is a place in the woods for the logger," Johnson says. "It’s just a matter of where, and in what balance with other values."

Johnson says many environmentalists in Idaho are ready to support logging projects aimed at restoring forests abused by the post-World War II logging frenzy. It’s a phenomenon that has even spread to the contentious spotted owl forests in western Oregon and Washington, as editor Greg Hanscom reports in this issue’s cover story.

But, as we have come to expect in these times, whenever peace seems to be at hand, somebody throws a bomb. In the case of the Pacific Northwest, it is not the radical environmentalists, but the Bush administration and those elements of the timber industry who are still bitter that they cannot cut the last old-growth trees. By continuing to push controversial logging proposals, the administration has reignited the timber wars at a time when nearly everyone else is ready to get back to work in the woods.

As Johnson says, "It’s almost like the Bush administration is begging for the old response."

Why would it do this? One answer is revenge against the environmentalists who helped put the final nail in the coffin of big timber cutting. Another is political. "Every tree in those controversial sales lies in a state that the administration doesn’t care about (in the upcoming election)," Johnson says. "It can afford to go back to the politics of division," and do the bidding of its industrial friends.

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame — and a huge lost opportunity for an administration that touts its commitment to local solutions that benefit communities and the environment. Fortunately, there is a rising tide of people in the West who do take this commitment seriously, and day by day, they are transforming management of the public lands for the benefit of all.