By Donella Meadows
–July 8, 1993–
The press conference announcing the government’s plan for the National Forests of the Pacific Northwest was a classic example of the art of David Gergen, Clinton’s new image-maker. Seven high officials, including the vice president and the president, spoke for 45 minutes. No one explained the plan. They did explain, over and over, what a wonderful president Bill Clinton is for making a plan. Never mind the substance here, what’s important is the image of the president.
It is true, though it would have been sufficient to say it just once, that the Clinton plan is better than anything we would have gotten from our other two choices last November, George Bush or Ross Perot. Bush spent four years trying to maintain the Reagan policy of chop-till-you-drop while subsidizing the chopping with taxpayer money. Under him timber cuts in the National Forests soared, data were falsified, and laws were violated so blatantly that environmentalists managed to get court injunctions to bring new timber contracting to a screeching halt.
The Perot policy would have been something like this (as quoted in The Oregonian, April 2, 1993): “We could create a little haven for the birds. We could put them all on Air Force One and fly them to some exotic place. That’s a lot cheaper than letting a whole region be devastated.”
Unlike Perot Bill Clinton understands the problem, and unlike Bush he is trying to tell the truth, obey the law, and protect the ecosystem. Like Perot and Bush he is also trying to keep the timber industry happy. The trouble is, overcutting has been so excessive for so long that the remaining forests can now sustain only a low harvest rate.
Though the press conference was uninformative, listening environmentalists knew that Clinton had compromised the sustainability of the forests when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt mentioned that the plan is based on “Option Nine.”
The administration originally drew up eight management options, allowing different harvest rates, setting different amounts of forest aside for protection, regulating logging more or less strictly. These eight options went through scientific and economic review to determine their effects on the economy and on endangered species. The options that would definitely protect all species allowed little cutting, while the ones that would permit the highest cuts (though all cuts considered were less than half of what industry had been taking before the injunction) could not guarantee that the 600 or so species dependent upon the old-growth forest would survive.
Clinton asked for more choices. One of them was Option Nine. It holds out no old-growth segments of the National Forests as inviolate. Even known owl territory is open for “thinning” and “salvage” — two terms that an unmonitored industry can turn into outrageous cutting. Option Nine requires uncut buffers along waterways (to reduce erosion that buries salmon breeding habitat), but the buffers are set at minimal size. The “matrix,” which is the amount of forest required to be left between cuts, is also minimal. The annual permitted cut is 1.2 billion board feet, which is 50 percent above what scientists believe is sustainable.
To help communities that were built around a harvest rate much too high to last, the president’s plan eliminates the tax subsidy on the export of raw logs. That will save some jobs by redirecting logs from sawmills in Japan to sawmills in the Pacific Northwest and should have been done years ago. He also proposes over $1 billion for community development, job retraining and new jobs in forest restoration.
It is, as some people are saying, a “Solomonic” policy, born of the puppylike attempt to please everyone that is the essence of Bill Clinton. The trouble is, nature doesn’t know or care about political compromise. That rate of cutting will degrade the forest ecosystem, whether Clinton’s popularity polls go up or down. Another trouble is that the interests Clinton wants to balance are not independent of each other. Logging can’t exist without forests. If the owl and salmon aren’t protected, in the long run the loggers aren’t either.
The Gergenized press conference about the compromised plan did carry one undertone of hope. The secretaries who are to administer the plan — Babbitt at Interior, Espy at Agriculture, Browner of the EPA — all sounded tentative. The general thrust was, let’s try it and see how it works. The plan sets up ten experimental forests, where different logging strategies will be tried and their effects on watersheds and ecosystems studied. This administration, guaranteed power for only four years, is aware that its plan has 200-year implications, and that it doesn’t know — that no one knows — all the answers. It has made room for experimentation and learning. That’s refreshing.
But the first rule of good experimentation is to set up “controls” so you know what would happen if you did nothing. For the sake of learning and for the safety of those 600-plus species, enough old-growth acreage should be absolutely protected from logging so that we have something to which to compare our experiments and something from which to recover if we make mistakes. The whole forest should not be the experiment. Otherwise even the most sincere attempt to save both ecosystem and economy may end up saving neither.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993