I recently read again, a reporter glibly pass off as fact that environmentalists had shut down the timber industry in the Northwest in the early 1990s.
When I lived north of Seattle in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to see large freighters in the port of Everett piled high with raw logs from Pacific Northwest forests bound for the Far East.
At the time, laid off timber industry workers blamed automation in the mills and those raw log exports for their lost jobs.
That was before 1990. Then the spotted owl, which depends on the old growth forests of the Northwest coast, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing affected logging in parts of the national forests in the Pacific Northwest, but suddenly environmentalists, the owl and the Act got all the blame for lost jobs and the demise of the timber industry.
That’s timber industry propaganda.
The owl listing became a handy scapegoat for large timber companies that already had begun to tiptoe quietly out of town. Their reckless forest practices, putting short-term profits ahead of healthy forests, resulted in loggers and mill workers losing their jobs. And the listing pitted loggers and environmentalists against each other, when they should have been allies.
In the 1950s, Weyerhaeuser company advertisements in southwest Washington promised timber jobs that would last for generations. But in 1986, George Weyerhaeuser told workers at a mill slated for closure that excess capacity and depressed prices — along with foreign competition — had forced a reduction in labor.
Weyerhaeuser was pulling out, closing mills, leaving families, communities and rural economies to collapse. Other timber giants were doing the same — moving their major operations to the Southeast.
From 1979 to 1988 more than 25,000 timber jobs were eliminated — 195 mills were shut down, while production rose by 12 percent and the timber cut increased by 7 percent. Technology had replaced about half the employees in many lumber mills. One in four logs was being exported.
Meanwhile, as timber jobs in the Pacific Northwest dropped, those jobs were going up in the Southeast.
But the loss of jobs had little to do with national forest restrictions to protect the spotted owl. The evidence is plain in Southwest Washington where corporate timber industry managers shut down logging on vast tracts of over-cut private timberland — not an acre of it federal land.
I don’t mean that listing the owl had no effect on logging. But to say the timber industry was shut down by environmental groups pushing for the listing is simply wrong.
The listing only hastened the inevitable result of shortsighted timber industry policy and destructive logging practices — as predicted in 1909 by Frank H. Lamb of the Washington State Forest Commission.
In March 1985, the American Forestry Association also predicted the collapse of the timber industry and local economies dependent on a dwindling nonrenewable resource. The association challenged forest management policy and urged forest managers to stop old-growth logging until they could wean timber dependent economies and transition to a sustainable forestry.
“If we did, owls and others could have their old growth and loggers their jobs, and no one would have to eat an environmentalist,” Robert Michael Pyle wrote in his book, “Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land.”
The timber industry itself was responsible for its demise in the Pacific Northwest.
Niels S. Nokkentved has written about natural resources in the Pacific Northwest for more than 25 years and is the author of three books.