- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 25, 2001

CASCADE, Idaho — Look in any direction along this stretch of rural Idaho and the first thing you see are the trees.They're everywhere thousands upon thousands of acres of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir, cascading down hills and blanketing mountains as far as the eye can see. For a century, the trees of the Boise, Payette, Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests provided the people here with shelter, work, recreation and a way of life.
No longer. As the poet Samuel Coleridge once observed about the ocean, that it has "Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink," the national forests of Idaho are filled with millions of trees that cannot be touched.
For the past decade, timber communities throughout the Northwest have waged a legal and public-relations battle with environmental groups over how the trees should be used. By all accounts and on every front, the loggers are losing.
President Theodore Roosevelt's vision of maintaining the national forests as the nation's lumber supply was replaced during the Clinton administration by the idea that forests should be preserved in their natural state. The amount of timber that could be harvested was reduced drastically, both by the administration's moratorium on road-building and by the legal system, as environmentalists took to the courts to stop the logging.
That shift has come at a price. There are more trees and more old-growth, but also more disease and dead wood. There are fewer chainsaws in the forests, but also fewer mills, homes and families. And within the small, wooded hamlets whose denizens have cut and replanted the trees for generations, there is poverty, dislocation, anger and a sense of disbelief that is slowly turning into resignation.
"It's tough, especially for the kids, because they look around and there are trees everywhere you look," said Dick Vandenburg, a Cascade City Council member. "They don't understand the politics."
Idaho and the rest of the Pacific Northwest have watched the timber economy plummet over the last decade, taking with it a dozen mills and at least 30,000 jobs. The reasons include automation and greater efficiency at timber mills and plants; falling lumber prices; and stiff competition from across the border in the form of cheaper Canadian lumber.
"The reason the mills closed is soft prices, imports from Canada, and the timber industry's willingness to move to other countries because of relaxed environmental standards under NAFTA," said Roger Singer, director of the Sierra Club's Idaho chapter. "The sudden downturn in the industry is due to market forces, not environmental challenges."
But those in the timber industry say they could have handled those fluctuations without closing the mills. What they couldn't handle was the political assault they faced from the environmental movement.
"All these mills have been around for almost a century. They've been through economic upturns and downturns. They went through the Depression," said Steve Bliss, a former millworker and union representative from Horseshoe Bend. "But you can't operate without raw materials.
"It has nothing to do with the economy and nothing to do with demand. It has everything to do with the environmental movement and political correctness," he said.
Starting in the mid-1980s, environmental groups began stepping up their opposition to timber sales in the national forests. The national forests are distinct from wilderness areas, where trees by law cannot be harvested. In Idaho, where 68 percent of the state's 53 million acres is run by the federal government, 7.5 percent of the land is classified as wilderness.
Each year, the Forest Service offers stands of timber for sale as determined under the forest plan, then takes bids and awards the sale to the highest bidder.
Environmentalists have managed to bring the process to a grinding halt by filing legal challenges, or appeals, to most timber sales. The appeals are usually based on perceived problems with the sale, such as a failure to take into account endangered species or sensitive wildlife habitat.
Sometimes the appeals are successful, and a judge halts the sale. "The reason we're successful is because the Forest Service isn't playing by the rules," said John McCarthy, wildlife director of the Idaho Conservation League, which is responsible for many of the challenges.
"They can't account for old growth and how it affects endangered species. We can always find experts on the inside who will say, 'They're doing it wrong,'" he said.
Even when the appeals fail, the process can drag on for years. That's too much time for small logging outfits and mills, which can go out of business waiting for a challenge to move through the legal system.
"You have one year to harvest whitewood," said Cascade Mayor Larry Walters. "But as soon as you put a sale up, you get hit with appeals. By the time it's resolved, that wood is no good any more. It's just such a waste."

Mill closes, town struggles
In February, Boise Cascade announced that it would shut down its mills in Cascade and Emmett, laying off 400 workers. While some critics blamed poor management, Chairman George J. Harad cited lack of raw materials.
The closures came as the end of an era for Boise Cascade, which has seen its mills in Idaho decline from five to none.
"Despite an adequate supply of timber, under the policies of the Clinton administration and pressure from environmental groups, the amount of timber offered for commercial harvest has declined more than 90 percent over the past five years," Mr. Harad said.
The ripple effect led to the closure of half-dozen other related businesses in Cascade, ranging from a rental equipment outlet to a flower shop. Soon the modest one-story homes in Cascade's neighborhoods were peppered with "For Sale" signs as families sought jobs elsewhere in the Northwest.
In Cascade, a town of a little more than a thousand, losing even one family leaves a void. After the mill closed, as many as 70 families moved, including some whose roots in the town went back three generations, said Mr. Vandenburg, the City Council member.
"I don't know what's worse, to leave town or to stay here and watch everyone else leave," he said.
Those fortunate enough to find jobs in Cascade were forced to take substantial pay cuts. Jobs at the Boise Cascade mill paid between $12 and $19 an hour with "the best benefits package in Idaho," said Ron Lundquist, a former millworker.
He now helps manage a trailer park, a job that pays well at $16 an hour but provides bare-bones benefits, not to mention less satisfaction.
"I enjoy this job," Mr. Lundquist said. "But I was raised in a resource family. There's something to be said for making something from a natural resource. It's rewarding because you're building something."

From resources to rafting
Faced with double-digit unemployment and no second coming of the timber industry in sight, Idaho logging towns are trying to diversify their economies by luring other businesses, starting with tourism. Given the beauty of the forests, rivers and lakes, spotlighting the area's rafting, boating and hiking opportunities came as a natural move.
When Cascade's mill closed, the town received a series of state grants, including one from the Idaho Tourism Council, to raise the town's profile. "The governor has been tremendous," Mr. Vandenburg said. "We've received grant after grant."
Tourism offers its own set of problems. The work is seasonal strong in the summer but virtually nonexistent in the winter and the jobs don't pay as well as mill work. In Riggins, just north of Cascade, the town has a thriving river-rafting business, but the investment hasn't paid off as well as locals had hoped.
"They're relying on tourism for their funds, and frankly, there isn't any money in that," said Wayne Davis, superintendent of the local school district. "You get a few backpackers, a few rafters, but there's nothing to sustain jobs."
Tourism also tends to change the complexion of towns. Locals point to the example of McCall, about 30 miles north of Cascade, where the town managed to replace a closed mill with tourism, then watched as wealthy retirees moved in, drove up housing prices and began pushing out the middle class.
"McCall has gone from a working man's community to a rich man's playground," said Dave Rosen, a former co-worker of Mr. Lundquist.
Another impediment to drawing tourists is the recent rash of forest fires, which locals blame on the Forest Service's official reluctance to clear dead and diseased wood. Potentially more devastating than the area's economic plight, locals say, is the threat to communities and forest health from fire.
On this issue, the residents are again meeting opposition from environmentalists, who argue that fire clears the deadwood more naturally than chainsaws. "I'd rather see us use fire as the tool of first choice than chainsaws as the tool of first choice," said Mr. McCarthy of the Conservation League.
Green groups also have fought efforts to clear the accumulating "fuel" through Forest Service salvage sales, which allow loggers to clear dead trees and brush. Locals say such sales could have helped keep many of the closed mills, including Cascade's, in business.
"The thing about salvage is that it doesn't just look at dead trees it also looks at what's going to die," Mr. McCarthy said, adding that his group recently stopped a large salvage sale in North Idaho. "And you can't predict what's going to die and what's not."
Phil Davis, a Valley County commissioner and rancher, argues that the recent fires have been anything but natural, burning so hot and so long that the land takes decades to regenerate. He noted that 25 percent of the Payette National Forest has burned in the past few years, while the summer of 2000 fires left blackened an area the size of Rhode Island.
"The reason we're in this situation is that these people in the name of the environment have made it so the Forest Service cannot manage their lands," Mr. Davis said. "And it's been to the detriment of the environment."

Education and trees
Perhaps the biggest untold story from the timber economy's decline is its impact on public schools. Most schools rely on property taxes for the bulk of their funding, but in the West, where most of the land is federally owned, there isn't enough of a tax base to maintain rural schools. As a result, the Forest Service sends 25 percent of its sale receipts back to the state. Of that, 70 percent goes toward state road projects and 30 percent goes to schools.
Consequently, as timber profits have fallen, so has money for education. Cascade has just begun to feel the pinch, but in communities whose mills shut down five or six years ago, school officials have been forced to fire teachers, eliminate elective classes, cut sports and music, even trim the school week down from five days to four.
In Grangeville, where the Ida-Pine Mills closed five years ago, the district has lost 400 students in four years and seen its annual timber payments fall from $1.3 million to $225,000. The biggest hit came two years ago, when the district was forced to cut its budget by $600,000.
"In order to make the budget balance, we had to cut all our sports, our extracurricular activities, drama, debate and our food service," Superintendent Wayne Davis recalled. "It was devastating to anyone involved in extracurricular activities, just devastating."
Then the community got involved. Unwilling to abandon the football teams, parents from the Booster Club held auctions and raffles, chopped firewood and solicited donations. Students in Riggins spent the summer selling bottled water to highway workers.
Within two months, the families had amassed $350,000, just enough to reinstate the sports programs. Raising that kind of money would have been an impressive accomplishment for any school district, but for the depressed Grangeville district, where some schools have 70 percent of their students on free and reduced-price lunches, it was "phenomenal," Mr. Davis said.
This year, rural Western schools received a boost from Washington in the form of a funding bill sponsored by Sens. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, and Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. Known as Craig-Wyden, the bill sets timber payments to schools at 80 percent to 85 percent of historic highs for the next six years.
"Craig-Wyden is a wonderful bill, but it's a temporary fix," said Gary Stears, principal of Grangeville High School. "It's not the answer. Letting people work is the answer. Quit handcuffing them."
With 300 employees, the school district is now the largest employer in Grangeville. The town of 7,226 has had some success in attracting new businesses, but has yet to lure any company that can approach the mill's payroll. Still, families are reluctant to leave.
Mr. Davis attributes their loyalty to the community's values. "My guess is if you go into this parking lot, half of the cars would have the keys in them," he said. "A lady once said to me, 'If somebody was stranded and needed a vehicle, you would want them to use it.' The value system here is pretty strong. But we've got the second-highest unemployment in the state, so I worry about that."

Looking for alternatives
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has tried to come to the rescue with the Rural Idaho Initiative, a $4 million campaign aimed at helping depressed timber, mining and agricultural counties diversity their economies. Right now, that includes most of the state.
"These communities need a sign that, in fact, there's going to be a future there," Mr. Kempthorne said.
Millworkers seethed when Mr. McCarthy was quoted as saying they should all go work for Micron. "You notice that Micron's laying off people," Mr. Lundquist said. But state leaders are indeed looking for high-tech remedies for the ailing economy. Idaho recently became the first state to institute a tax credit for broadband companies that build in rural areas.
Not long ago, many communities held out hope that the mills would come back. Locals note that demand for paper products and lumber hasn't abated, and that Canadian loggers, aided by a pro-timber government, are growing rich off the American lumber market.
Locals say they're encouraged by what they've seen so far from the Bush administration. Shortly after taking office, President Bush put the brakes on the Clinton administration's plan to rope off 40 million acres of forest as roadless areas, a move that would have cut off access to yet more timber.
On Oct. 31, the Commerce Department agreed to impose tariffs of up to 40 percent on Canadian lumber, citing trade practices that have given the Canadians an unfair advantage.
"I think [Bush officials] want this to change, but they're politicians, too," said Mr. Stears, the school principal. "Even though they're friendlier to natural resources, they're subject to the same pushes and pulls. But I'm much more optimistic than before."
Others say it's time to move on. "People are resigned to it," Mr. Davis said. "They're making alternative plans. We don't want to live on the false illusion that it's all going to be OK tomorrow."
Mr. Kempthorne predicts a future in which most logging on national forests is tied to forest health.
"It probably won't be cutting for the sake of cutting it'll be for clearing the fuel load on the national forests," he said. "The facts now prove that if we don't reduce the fuel load, we'll continue to see the forests blackened."
Even if the Bush administration were able to swing public opinion back in favor of logging, override the appeals process and bring logs back to the mills tomorrow, it might not be enough for some towns.
"The pendulum is probably going to swing back, but for a lot of these towns, it's too late," said Mr. Bliss, the former millworker and union representative. "There's never going to be another sawmill in Horseshoe Bend or Cascade it would cost $50 million in today's dollars to build it."
For anyone who lives in these woods, however, it doesn't take much to restore their faith in the forest's ability to provide for them.
"You drive out five minutes in any direction and you're in forest," Cascade School Principal Bill Leaf said. "My father logged the same lands that my grandfather was logging with a horse and teams. It's been here for generations and it's still beautiful land. It hasn't been pilfered."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide