The task of balancing forest management between economic and environmental concerns is a difficult one, the kind that lends itself to empty rhetoric from policymakers.
So forgive our cynicism when Dane Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tells citizens in Southwest Washington: "Let's define this thing we're calling healthy forests and then let's walk in that direction." That is what Ashe intoned last week as part of a roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. The topic was how to increase federal timber harvests and simultaneously improve the health of forests, specifically the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
And while Ashe is attempting a reasoned approach, the notion of "healthy forests" has been the subject of a circular debate for decades.
In 1990, the northern spotted owl — which lives in the forests of Washington, Oregon and Northern California — was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In 1991, logging in national forests encompassing spotted owl habitat was halted by a court order. And in 1994, President Bill Clinton implemented the Northwest Forest Plan.
The idea was to ensure that federal forests would receive environmental protection, while local economies would receive a sustainable timber harvest that would keep mills running and keep people employed. As residents of Skamania and Lewis counties can attest, it hasn't worked that way. Timber sales in the 1.3-million-acre Gifford Pinchot fell from 689 million board feet in 1990 to 33 million board feet by 2012, devastating the economy. Lee Grose, a Lewis County commissioner, told last week's task force, "I have a problem with sitting at a table again telling the agencies the impact this is having on our communities."
That is because the talk has grown tiresome. Meanwhile, the saga of the spotted owl has gone from difficult to absurd.
Last year, the federal government determined that part of the reason for the owl's diminishing population is a threat from the more aggressive barred owl, so officials began shooting barred owls in an attempt to protect the spotted owl. "If we don't do it, what we're essentially doing, in my view, is dooming the spotted owl to extinction," Lowell Diller, senior biologist for timber company Green Diamond, told NPR. "It's very upsetting, and there's nothing that's going to stop this expansion of barred owls from continuing."
To recap, the plight of the spotted owl has led to a shutdown of logging on federal lands, has devastated local economies, and has led to the government-sanctioned massacre of barred owls. Somewhere along the way, regulators lost sight of the need to balance environmental concerns with common sense.
All of which leaves the people of Southwest Washington in dire need of relief. According to Skamania County Commissioner Bob Anderson, about 60 percent of the area's workforce needs to leave town each morning in order to earn a paycheck.
The discussion hosted by Herrera Beutler — she held a similar roundtable a year ago — is a necessary one, but the people of the region need more action and less talk. "What I see here is people thinking outside the box . . .," Herrera Beutler said. "Let's try something that hasn't been done before." Or, as the Fish and Wildlife Service's Ashe said, the stakeholders in the issue have a choice: "Swing the pendulum one way or build alignment."
The problem is that the federal government has swung the pendulum so far as to hammer residents on the head with it. Those people deserve better.