Forest activists retrench and grope for support


Nearly 400 West Coast forest activists who gathered in Ashland, Ore., last month were faced with a sobering civics lesson: Their foes in Congress and statehouses throughout the West had captured the populist high ground.

The fourth Western Ancient Forest Conference, sponsored by the Ashland-based environmental group Headwaters, is an annual gathering of the forest preservation tribe from southeast Alaska to the California Sierras and points east. It's also a barometer of the environmental movement's mood and morale.

Two years ago the tone of the conference was anxious yet hopeful. This year, halfway through Clinton's four-year term and two months after the Republican takeover of Congress, hope was hard to come by.

Activists, still demoralized by the failure of their legal challenge to President Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan, were served up a preview of more setbacks to come along with their vegan lunches:

* Plans by the Forest Service for massive salvage logging throughout the West, possibly aided by an emergency congressional appropriation that would shield the sales from legal challenges;

* Proposals to turn over federal lands to the states;

* Budget bills that forbid the U.S. Interior Department to spend money on its National Biological Service or on additional listings of imperiled species until the Endangered Species Act is reauthorized.

Roger Featherstone of the Endangered Species Coalition, a broad-based Washington, D.C., group, said conservative Republicans sympathetic to the wise-use agenda have seized the initiative.

"There's not been a lot of leadership from Congress, the administration, the agencies or even the environmental groups themselves," Featherstone said.

If environmentalists want to regain the initiative, he said, "we have to build leaders in our own movement and in Washington. Wise use started with electing their own people to school boards. We have to provide our own leadership for the next generation."

Environmentalists also must be more creative and forthright in stating their bottom line, Featherstone said.

"We have to have some vision in the laws we propose, such as reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. To work with Republicans you have to have a measure of respect built up. You ask for what you want and you don't back off from that."

Steve Holmer of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign urged activists to be visible in Washington, D.C., and in the offices of their own congressional representatives, whether Democratic or Republican. "It's very important that we're bipartisan," he said. "We can't afford to write off one member."

Making the case that federal subsidies harm the environment may prove an effective tactic, Holmer added. "Brush up on your economics. Every argument is on our side, economic as well as ecological."

John Fitzgerald, executive director of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, had a special message for Northwest activists, who are in a position to put pressure on two of the Senate's most powerful Republican leaders: Oregon's Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Washington's Sen. Slade Gorton, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that will approve Interior Department and Forest Service budgets.

"The chairman of Senate Appropriations can get anything he wants' by withholding funds for the pet projects of other senators, Fitzgerald said. "Our friends across the nation are watching you. We have to develop a citizens' shopping list ... Let's rescind some roads, some timber sales."

Message fits the angst

The conference's most discouraging words came from Tarso Ramos, a former labor organizer who heads the Wise Use Public Exposure Project at the Western States Center in Portland. Ramos said the wise-use movement's formidable power comes in part from its populist call for political self-determination, especially in rural communities. Its support for private property rights has helped the movement expand into suburban areas as well, he said.

"Wise use has popularized anti-environmentalism as a hot-button issue now being picked up by other movements," Ramos said. For instance, he noted, when the anti-gay-rights Oregon Citizens Alliance branched out into Washington and Idaho it announced that it supported family values and private property rights.

The wise-use message fits the angst of the times, Ramos said. People are fearful for their economic future and suspicious of government. "What's changed is that someone is going to organize these disaffected citizens and for the most part that is not progressives or environmentalists."

Environmentalists must develop a more sophisticated approach to economic issues and come up with their own job-creation proposals to keep rural areas viable, Ramos said. "Be able to distinguish between huge multinational corporations and smaller local companies whose employees provide recruits for wise-use campaigns. The timber industry is not monolithic. And recognize the difference between timber companies and the people who work for them.

"You must take on these economic issues head on," he stressed. "It's the only way the environmental movement stands a chance of surviving as a powerful political force in this country. If it stays isolated, the movement threatens to become an agent in its own destruction."

Veteran environmental lobbyist Brock Evans, vice president of the National Audubon Society, offered a more optimistic message. "We're going to fight wise use and we're going to beat them," he said. "They can be beaten. We've faced groups like this before."

However, a large number of sympathetic congressional staffers lost their jobs with the GOP takeover, Evans admitted, and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, has told the major national conservation groups they won't be invited to testify before his committee.

These are strange days, indeed, Evans conceded. "The tidal wave in Congress is a totally different structure than I've seen in my lifetime. The historian in me is fascinated; the lobbyist in me is scared."

The writer reports from Portland, Oregon.

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