An Endangered Human Species

Article excerpt

AS you hold in your hands a worthwhile product made from trees, ask yourself this: In an age of environmental awareness and concern over the preservation of species, is there a place for people whose livelihoods - and maybe lives - depend on gathering the natural resources we all use?

It is an increasingly relevant question, involving not just regional economies but the social fabric of hundreds of communities.

This is the major subplot behind the drama over protecting habitat for the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. But it is just as true for many areas where grazing, mining, fishing, and other resource-based activities - all under attack by environmentalists - have been the heart and soul of family and community life for generations.

Things are coming to a head now over the spotted owl. Four separate federal lawsuits are tying up timber sales on federal lands. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has just recommended that 11.6 million acres (territory larger than Massachusetts and Vermont combined) be designated critical owl habitat. That's 4 million acres more than was recommended by a government panel of scientists last year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that more sawmills were closed in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho last year than during any previous 12-month period - nearly twice as many as during the regional recession of 1980 to '82. The region as a whole continues to enjoy good economic health, but about 8,500 mill workers were laid off at some point last year. Estimates of job losses due to the owl listing range from 48,000 up to 100,000. In towns like Sweet Home, Mill City, Roseburg, and Coos Bay, these are more than economic statistics. They are sleepless nights and tightened belts and lost opportunities. They are worry over house payments, doctor bills, and groceries.

There is no doubt that industry leaders and their friends in government were less than farsighted when they pushed for timber cuts that could not be sustained by healthy forests. They blame environmentalists, but automation and overseas exports of raw logs to boost profits have cost US mill jobs too. It's also true that species need to be protected as the world begins to learn the importance of that new word, "biodiversity. …