Some Environmental Activists See the Light on Logging

Published March 1, 2009

After decades of assault from environmental activist groups, Oregon’s timber industry is now being defended by some as environmentally superior to the alternative: selling land to developers.

Falling commodity prices, coupled with a steep decline in new home construction, are forcing Oregon timber companies to question whether it makes economic sense to hold on to their forest lands.

But the prospect of timber companies selling their lands to developers has set off alarms in the offices of some environmental organizations. The thought of subdivisions, shopping centers, malls, car washes, and golf courses sprouting up where tall timbers once stood is starting to make the chainsaw look more attractive with each passing day.

Suburbs or Forests?

Lawrence Selzer, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Conservation Fund, is among those rethinking the environmental movement’s decades of hostility to logging.

“The environmental movement has spent 40 years perfecting the art of saying no [to logging] and has almost no ability to say yes,” Selzer told the Portland Oregonian.

“If you want salmon, you have to protect the habitat,” said Guido Rahr, president of the Portland, Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center. “We are seeing a steady trend of breaking up timber and agricultural lands to smaller and smaller parcels that often get developed into homes and subdivisions. This type of development puts significantly more strain on wild rivers than is presently the case under timber production.”

Industry Can Conserve

Some analysts suggest allowing forestry to become a profitable enterprise is actually the best way to preserve the nation’s timberlands.

“There is a growing realization that eliminating forestry is not a long-term environmental solution,” said Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center. “Sustainable forestry creates renewable products for construction while assuring the maintenance of wildlife habitat that animals need.

“A viable forestry industry is important because much of the forest land is owned by families. They need a healthy industry to sell their logs and receive the economic benefit that is necessary to keep their land in forestry rather than development,” Myers added.

Long-Term Perspective

“Timber companies see that it is now more economical to turn timber land over to other uses, such as home development,” Rahr said. “As much as we are concerned about the timber industry practices, it is the breakup of these timber lands that concerns us even more. The breakup of timberland is a serious long-term threat.

“We have a situation where the human population here is projected to double in 40 years,” Rahr added. “So the threats and the pressures we see on our wild salmon will be potentially doubled in 40 years, and they will continue to increase on to the end of the century. If we want to save things like wild salmon and healthy rivers, we need to take a long-term view.”

Habitat at Risk

Over the past few decades, groups such as Ecotrust, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, and Pacific Forest Trust have bought private timber land or purchased conservation easements to limit development. The current economic downturn threatens to cut into the funds the groups have available for large-scale land or easement purchases.

In addition, the gradual encroachment of suburbia into rural areas makes the sale of forest land to real estate developers increasingly attractive. This is particularly true in arid eastern Oregon, where trees don’t grow as quickly they do west of the Cascades.

The concerns now being voiced by some environmental activists are rooted in their largely successful campaigns to curtail logging in the Pacific Northwest.

In the wake of the spotted owl controversy in the 1990s, sawmills throughout the region shut down, many timber-dependent communities disappeared, and skilled loggers sought their fortunes elsewhere. The forestry industry’s infrastructure was severely damaged, another reason timber companies increasingly consider selling their land to developers rather than waiting for the economy to improve.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.