The timber sale that won't die

Eagle Creek has become an icon for anti-logging activists

  • Map of Eagle timber sale in Mount Hood NationalForest

    Diane Sylvain
 

MOUNT HOOD, Wash. - High up on the western flank of Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest, Donald Fontenot hikes with a sense of urgency. Undeterred by the light rain, he races along an invisible path until he arrives at a lush grove of mature Douglas firs and hemlocks. "This," he says breathlessly, "is the stand I'd lose my freedom for."

To Fontenot, an activist with Cascadia Forest Alliance, the grove is living on borrowed time; it's part of the controversial Eagle Creek timber sale, 35 percent of which has already been cut. The big trees will be lost forever, he says, unless he and a few other activists bodily block the chainsaws. And, if it comes down to it, he says, he's willing to go to prison.

With that kind of conviction, you'd think Fontenot - an unassuming former nurse who's previously chained himself to Eagle Creek's road gates - was standing in an ancient grove of 500-year-old granddaddies, home to endangered spotted owls. But he's not. The trees are part of an unremarkable, second-growth forest that naturally regenerated after a wildfire 100 years ago.

Why, then, has Eagle Creek become an environmental holy war? The answer is as long and tangled as a protester's dreadlocks. The 16-year-old, 1,030-acre sale owes its controversial character to such players as the Salvage Rider, a waffling timber company, and PR-savvy environmentalists.

Currently, environmentalists hold center stage: The logging is halted, the timber company wants out of the contract, prominent politicians oppose the sale, and a recent unsolved firebombing of three logging trucks near the site has sawmills so worried about eco-terrorism that they refuse to buy the lumber.

But even as protesters savor their minor victories, they're plotting a bigger coup: The end of all commercial logging in federal forests. It's a dream even mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club covet. Critics, however, argue both the protest and larger goal are a waste of time. "The environmentalists won the war and now they're going around bayoneting the wounded," says Jerry Franklin, a leading University of Washington silviculturist.

Strange bedfellows

The story begins in 1985, when the Forest Service conducted its first logging surveys in the Eagle Creek area. But it doesn't pick up until 1994, the year President Clinton brokered the Northwest Forest Plan, a watershed compromise that preserved old-growth forests in exchange for logging less critical areas, known as "matrix" lands. Under the plan, Eagle Creek became matrix and the Forest Service accelerated its previous intentions to sell the trees.

Even before the Northwest Forest Plan, watchdog groups contemplated legal action against the sale. But in 1995, Eagle Creek qualified under the Salvage Rider, which prevented opponents from appealing Forest Service timber sales (HCN, 9/4/95: Forest Service wants to play by a new set of rules).

So in 1996, when Vanport Manufacturing, Inc., purchased the right to log, Cascadia Forest Alliance says it pursued the only option available: It took to the streets, and later the woods. In 1999, four activists moved into the trees to block a second season of logging.

The tree-sits have become a winning public-relations tool, says Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Journalists only have to drive 45 minutes from Portland to record young protesters confounding federal law-enforcement officers, he says. Yet the publicity has given attention to environmental grievances, mainly potential damage to watersheds that provide water for downstream municipalities, and an increased risk of trees blowing down in high winds and fueling wildfires.

Ironically, protesters have found an ally in their old enemy - the timber company. Adolph Heinrich, president of Vanport Manufacturing Inc., carefully chooses his words when he says he'd accept a Forest Service offer to "absolve us of the contract," but not because he's a born-again green.

It boils down to simple business ABCs, he explains. Vanport shelled out $10.3 million to log Eagle Creek, which was bid up 2.5 times the original asking price. Now the Asian timber market that Vanport specializes in has plummeted. With the market forecast bleak and no third-party logging company willing to take over the contract, the opportunity to make a profit or simply break even is slim.

"We're indifferent to Eagle Creek, now," Heinrich says, with a wave of his hand. Instead, he says, Vanport is logging in British Columbia, Russia and Europe. "You go wherever the raw material is cheapest," he adds. Recently, though, the Oregonian quoted Heinrich saying he wants to cut Eagle Creek no matter what.

The law is the law is the law

Even with activists and loggers in tenuous agreement, Mount Hood National Forest officials insist the logging must resume, not only because the Northwest Forest Plan calls for it, but because eliminating the trees is good forestry.

Standing in a grove of firs not far from Cascadia's protests, timber manager Jim Rice, a 23-year veteran of the Forest Service who helped design the sale, says Eagle Creek is a mono-species, doghair forest that's highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire and soil erosion. By having Vanport thin or cut in patches, Rice says, the Forest Service will prevent wildfire and protect the downstream water supply.

"We've done our best with Eagle Creek," says Rice, who says he's received death threats for his role in the sale. "This is not the clear-cutting job of 15 years ago."

A recent independent scientific review agrees the timber sale is environmentally sound. While the review did advise removing fewer trees, the Forest Service overall "did a very good job," says Jerry Franklin, who led the team of four scientists.

The protesters, he says, have missed the big picture. Since the 1980s, logging on federal lands is down by 70 percent. Matrix lands comprise only 3 million of the 24 million acres of federal forest. "The energy being spent on these last scraps could be better put to use," he says, such as encouraging state agencies and private landowners to adopt ecologically sound logging practices.

Ivan Maluski, a spokesman with American Lands Alliance, an environmental group which opposes the sale, is undeterred. He counters that the Forest Service "shouldn't be in the business of selling trees, to begin with," and says the practice continues because the agency still gets a kickback from timber receipts. He adds that only 4 percent of America's domestic wood products come from federal forests, so a logging shutdown won't cramp consumers.

Even if the Forest Service wanted to end commercial logging, Congress would have to amend the Northwest Forest Plan. "There's no chance of that under the Bush administration," says Chris West of the timber-industry group, American Forest Resource Council.

Renewed timber wars?

The uproar over Eagle Creek has grabbed political attention. Vanport's peculiar alliance with protesters has created a potential win-win situation - something that hasn't gone unnoticed by Oregon Democrats. Sen. Ron Wyden, four House representatives and Portland Mayor Vera Katz have all spoken publicly against the sale.

Some see their interest as public posturing. "Beating up on the Forest Service is always politically advantageous," says Andy Stahl, because it looks good to liberal constituents. So far, though, no one is willing to champion legislation that would stop the logging.

With no one leading the way, the Eagle Creek sale promises to have an extended shelf life. "We're not going away," says Donald Fontenot. "We'll be around for a long time to come."

Rachel Jackson wrote this while an intern at HCN. She now lives in Portland, Oregon.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Jim Rice, Klackamas River Ranger District, 503/630-6861;
  • Cascadia Forest Alliance, 503/241-4879;
  • Jerry Franklin, University of Washington, 206/543-2138.
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