The Killing Fields
A war is being waged in a remote corner of this country. It's going on not far from such urban centers as Seattle and Olympia, Portland and Salem. The trees are not falling, they are being felled.
By the year 2000, the campaign to clear the Pacific Northwest of its majestic, virgin forest could be history. And in their race against restrictions and regulations, the timber companies wreak havoc on the countryside.
Hellbent to harvest a crop they did not plant, the loggers leave behind a battlefield strewn with war's spoils: misshapen logs and stumps, distorted and twisted beyond belief--the grotesque deformities of wooden corpses.
Fields like this lie in Forks, a small Washington logging town outside of Olympic National Park that is the westernmost incorporated city in the contiguous U.S. People in Forks boast that they reside in the timber capital of the world and any visitor can get the message loud and clear without even talking to the locals.
As is true in much of the Pacific Northwest, almost every storefront in Forks displays a sign that reads "We Support the Timber Industry." But another sign tells a bit more about the tie that binds together this community of 3000. "Tie a Yellow Ribbon for the Working Man," the placard reads. And sure enough, the small spruce trees that line the road into town are laced with hundreds of yellow ribbons.
No, this is not a display of solidarity with U.S. soldiers who served in the Gulf War, but a show of support for heroes of a different sort--the loggers, troops of the Pacific Northwest--without whom towns like Forks wouldn't exist and wives and children wouldn't be fed. And these days, it's the loggers who are threatening to wipe out a lot more than trees and forest.
Ever since 1989, it became clear that the northern spotted owl was endangered and that much of its natural habitat would be destroyed if unrestricted logging practices continued in Washington and Oregon.
The reclusive owl is fast approaching extinction in places like Forks. Without the tall trees and well-shaded environment of the oldgrowth forest, the owl loses areas needed for nesting, canopy needed for cover and rotting longs needed to support its prey--mice and other rodents--on the forest floor. To put it plainly: no old trees, no spotted owl.
Yet where these trunks lie twisted in treeless meadows and spotted owls venture no more, the poor bird draws more attention and gets more press than the most popular county sheriff. According to Sallie Tisdale, writing in the Sierra Club's July/August 1992 issue of Sierra magazine, "Spotted owls have been shot, crucified, hung and their corpses mailed to various people perceived as environmentalists."
And Forks is not the only logging town where yellow ribbons and timber go hand in hand. All over the Northwest there have been Yellow Ribbon rallies, where, Tisdale reports, "300, 600, sometimes 1200 log trucks in a line rumble through small towns and along the main thoroughfares of cities for an afternoon."
Just bringing up the logging issue with locals unleashes an attack on environmentalists and owls alike. Bob Bray, 46, a gas station attendant who lives in Forks, says if it wasn't for the logging industry there would be no community. "People outside Forks use the owl as an excuse to limit logging." Bray told me this past summer. "If it wasn't the owl it would be something else."
Michelle Morgan, 22, a part-time worker who stands beside Bray, agrees. "Now I hear they're trying to make a moth or slug an endangered species," she says. "How can that be? How can a moth be an endangered species?"
Looking me in the eyes and saying that people from cities just can't understand, Bray says, "Hard to wipe your ass with the spotted owl, huh Michelle?"
Arguing with nature's foes isn't that easy. Timber industry executives are no dummies. They try to outsmart their opponents by claiming they're better for the environment than the environmentalists. Tisdale quotes a pamphlet issued by the Caterpillar company--manufacturer of bulldozers and cranes needed to remove the Northwest's oldest trees--as an example of this absurd attempt to fool those opposed to the clearcutting: "The Facts Say: Forests do not necessarily improve with age. Decaying stands lack the food resources animals require. Density of old stands blocks sunlight, discouraging new growth."
Wow! Cutting down forests will help the animals. Save nature by destroying it. Tisdale calls this "revisionist biology" and it's dangerous stuff--totally contrary to fact.
Animals need old growth forests for shelter and protection. They need the ground cover that has been there for decades, able to nurture the small plants and animals that support the fragile ecosystem. Animals need a continuous stand of older growth, as survival among smaller trees with limited forage is unsustainable.
And it's not just owls that will suffer from the clearcuts. Removing trees that have been there for centuries causes tremendous erosion. Disappearance of vast root systems allows soil to run down into valleys and rivers, killing fish and destroying the water's web of life. And certainly man is affected by the clearcutting too.
No vacation-seeker would want to spend time in the barren, broken swaths of logged countryside. The loggers have turned many beautiful areas of the Pacific Northwest into ugly, bare brown-spots--almost totally devoid of life.
But the timber industry will go to incredible lengths to mask their true destructive intentions. For the strip of Highway 101 that runs through Forks, the Society of American Foresters actually publishes a brochure to guide you through a "motor tour" of the cut-down forests you pass along the way.
This bit of PR couldn't fool the most naive city-dweller. The pamphlet's first sentence reads, "It is not readily apparent to U.S. Highway 101 travelers that the logged areas all along the route are giving birth to a new generation of forests." No kidding. But it only gets better--"Although the recently logged areas will be unattractive for a time, new trees are growing rapidly." Well, not exactly. I could drive down that road every day for the rest of my life and it would still look like Mt. St. Helens had erupted in the next field over.
But in the end, the whole issue comes down to politics and economics. In a quest to woo voters from the rural Northwest, conservative politicians portray the issue as jobs versus the environment, security versus the owl. The move is on to water down the Endangered Species Act in order to allow the timber industry to retain current employment levels and log the spotted owl into extinction.
As reported in The New York Times on Tuesday, some of the small lumber mills in Forks have been forced to close. The town's treasurer and clerk said, "There's a lot of timber here, but it can't be harvested because of government regulation," under the Endangered Species Act.
"Save jobs, shoot an environmentalist"--grafitti scrawled inside a bathroom at an Oregon campground--thus came as no surprise.
And comments from a campground worker at a national park in Oregon were not that out of the ordinary either. Suddenly jumping to the environmental issue after a discussion about forest fires, he said, "It's those environmentalists. I heard one of them on a talk show and they finally got it out of him. They don't want to cut down trees because they don't want to build houses. They don't want anymore growth in this country. That's our whole problem."
President Bush, quick to focus on such popular resentment while campaigning in the Pacific Northwest, has found it easy to scapegoat the owl for the region's economic woes. Speaking in Colville, Washington on Monday, Bush said "Not far from here is a timber town called Forks. Like Colville, Forks supported a mill, and the mill supported a community. Because of a lack of timber, the mill had to close. Today unemployment at Forks is at 20 percent," Bush said. "It's time to put people ahead of owls," he concluded.
So the spotted owl and some of the last untouched wilderness in this country will be destroyed to satisfy the insecurities of the man-in-the-white-house in Washington, D.C. and the man-on-the-street in Forks, Washington. Sure. Cut everything down and unemployment will come in a few years anyway--no trees gives loggers nothing to cut down.
The issue isn't as simple as conservatives would have you believe. There's no need for a stark choice between the 3000 residents of Forks and the 3000 northern spotted owl nesting pairs left in Washington, Oregon and California.
What do environmentalists suggest? They're no "radicals" or "extremists," as their opponents insist. Says one ranger in Olympic National Park: "You still need some wood, but some of us support more selective cutting."
The trees are already gone and those left standing can't fend off the saws. Others must act in their stead.