Justice for owls, and for communities


A recent newspaper story on the revised Clinton forest plan was illustrated with a picture of Larry Mason standing by his abandoned lumber mill in Forks, Wash. I met Larry when I went to talk with Peter Yu, the administration official responsible for the jobs portion of the Clinton plan. Yu, by mistake, or perhaps to make a point, scheduled my meeting at the same time he was meeting with several wise-use advocates.

My message to Yu was that the President should include long-term economic development in his forest plan. I argued that short-term assistance was necessary to help stressed timber-dependent communities, but that by itself would only encourage dependency. Yu was not persuaded.

Several weeks after the meeting, Larry Mason wrote, questioning whether an "environmentalist" could really be an advocate for help to timber communities. If I ever see Larry again I will tell him about my mother, and how her father moved his family from small town to small town in South Carolina, following cotton mill jobs. After World War II, the mills began to close. From the perspective of time, I can see that the closing of the cotton mills was inevitable, and perhaps even a good thing. But the brunt of the change was borne by the people who worked in the mills and their families. Some of the children of my mother's generation - my contemporaries - are lawyers and business executives today. Many are night watchmen and gas station attendants.

The South has paid a heavy price for its failure to ease the dislocation caused by the transformation of the region from a rural cotton economy. Much of the opposition to civil rights was caused by the resulting disaffection of poor Southern whites, in whose lives resentment was a dominant force. Generations of Southerners have elected manipulative politicians who were willing to capitalize on that resentment.

The thread that runs from the cotton mills of the South to the timber towns of the Northwest is the idea of justice.

I am an environmentalist because it is unjust to consume more than your share in a world where other people are starving. It is unjust for people who live today to diminish the productive capacity of the earth when future generations will do without, or worse, as a result.

Samuel Johnson said, "I have found the world kinder than I expected, but less just." This may still be true. The wonderful thing about justice as a concept, however, is that it is all-encompassing. The same justice that requires us to conserve the earth's resources requires that we be equally concerned about economic justice for communities affected by forces they cannot control.

Once a petitioner in the court of Justice Learned Hand said, "All I want is justice, your honor." Justice Hand replied, "This is not a court of justice, it is a court of law." The Clinton administration has given us a plan that is a sincere attempt to resolve the legal issues surrounding the crisis in the Northwest's forests.

At a conference in Tacoma in February to discuss implementing the plan, congressional representatives and administration officials agreed that the timber war is over, and that the people of the Northwest can accept the Clinton plan or continue to live under the court injunction which prevents logging in old-growth forests. In either case, the amount of logging will decline significantly from historic levels.

The Clinton plan may be all that can be accomplished in the realm of law. But, there are creative and farsighted ways to reinvest in the affected communities beyond short-term "jobs for the environment."

For those of us in the Northwest, the issue of justice remains, and it will not be adequately resolved until long-term help is available to the people and communities that are caught in social and economic changes the Clinton plan acknowledged but never fully addressed.

Arthur Dye is vice president of Ecotrust in Portland, Oregon.

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