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Know the West

A new day


Note: this front-page editor's note introduces this issue's feature story, "After the fall."

The "giant sucking sound" that presidential candidate H. Ross Perot described in his 1992 campaign can be heard today in the Northern Rockies, where the major timber companies are about done liquidating their private land and are busily moving cash, jobs and mills to places where trees grow faster than in Idaho and Montana.

It's sustainability of a sort: The companies probably plan to return in a century for another spasm of clear-cutting. In the meantime, the Northern Rockies faces a challenge: what to do with millions of acres of cut-over land.

The ever-ingenious Plum Creek Timber provides one answer. At its Web site, the firm advertises lakeside and valley-bottom plots of land with second-growth trees. So the firm's latest contribution to forest health is to scatter development throughout its 1.6 million acres of land.

Mills in the Northern Rockies also have been squeezed by a 70 percent decline in national forest logging during the past decade, driven in part by a public backlash against logging abuses. The "zero cut" movement proposes to eliminate all logging on public lands.

There are other approaches. Steve Thompson's lead article suggests that some land can be brought back to health through community-based stewardship programs and small firms that provide high-quality wood products while doing forest restoration.

This will require entrepreneurs, highly skilled mill workers, and a rigorous Forest Service to restore national forests to health. The agency knows it must make the transition from timber beast to restoration forester, but that is being prevented by the agency's culture, rural communities, and, most of all, by Western senators.

The Northern Rockies region has seen what an unrestrained free market and crony capitalism can do to a vast landscape. Now, Thompson writes, it's a new day.