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A quiet truce in the green wars

By Jim Carlton, staff reporter - Wall Street Journal

Mike Mahon used to spend his time in forests chopping them down. Now, he and a growing number of Northwestern loggers who have lost jobs in recent years are finding it pays to go green.

The burly 43-year-old hikes through a dark woods to the place where he recently used a shredding machine, the MeriCrusher, to reduce a chest-high thicket of shrubbery to pulp, giving a stand of towering Douglas firs more breathing room. His job is part of a joint local and federal project to restore forests where decades of aggressive logging have permitted thick clusters of
small trees to grow, creating fire hazards and endangering valuable old-growth trees.

"This is sure a lot different from what I used to do," says the third-generation lumberjack, "but at least it keeps me in the woods."

All over this rural corner of northeastern Oregon, laid-off timber workers are working with their former adversaries from the environmental movement to retool logging skills for eco-friendly causes. Just a few years ago, the idea would have been unthinkable, in a region where thousands of loggers have lost jobs. In addition to its abundant trees, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest also is home to spawning grounds for the Chinook salmon, which landed on the federal endangered species list in 1993. The resulting federal logging limits have left many local economies in ruins.

Now, one former lumberjack is working for federal officials enforcing the Endangered Species Act of 1973, going into the forest and counting lynxes.

"Luckily I didn't find any, or else I would have made a lot of enemies in Wallowa County," says the 51-year-old logger, Del Stanley, referring to the additional logging limits even one lynx sighting might have invited.

The loggers' new jobs are largely the result of an unusual effort by a Portland, Ore., nonprofit group called Sustainable Northwest, which is trying to help revive local economies with eco-friendly projects. In the five years since the group has been working in Wallowa County, it has helped create about 100 green jobs, paid for in part by the federal government. Those jobs have
helped to offset the 400 timber jobs lost to sharp logging restrictions in the surrounding national forest.

Similar partnerships are forming elsewhere in the rural West. In Arizona, the Sonoran Institute is helping ranchers to diversify from cattle grazing on public lands to pursuits such as hosting eco-tours. In California's Monterey County, struggling strawberry farmers have found work controlling soil runoff on steep slopes. "To make these kind of projects work, it has to benefit both sides," says Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation, a San Francisco group that helped start the erosion project.

The greening of Wallowa County's economy is one of the more visible achievements of the so-called sustainability movement, a compromise-minded faction of environmentalists that tries to turn grassroots foes into allies by offering them incentives, such as jobs, to go green. While many
environmentalists blast the Bush administration for trying to expand drilling, mining, and other resource use in the nation's Western expanses, the sustainability movement is quietly working with local and federal officials to create jobs that balance economic and environmental needs.

"We want to make eco-entrepreneurs of people who have been viewed ... in the environmental community as the bad guy," says Martin Goebel, president of Sustainable Northwest.

The new eco-friendly jobs aren't the absolute economic equivalent of the ones lost in natural-resource industries in recent years. For starters, the new jobs are far fewer in number, and many don't pay nearly as well. Still, in communities such as Wallowa County, where mills and workers have been idled for years, they are a welcome step in the right direction.

Wallowa's Joseph Timber Co. mill, for example, has reopened after six months of no work, with new machinery to cut lumber out of the spindly, clustered trees that forest-service officials view as a fire threat. The mill has called 47 workers back to jobs, and eight more are set to return in a few

The sustainable-development movement began in the developing world, where indigenous peoples were encouraged to work as tour guides and park rangers. It has spread to timber and ranching communities in Western states, as government, business and environmental leaders there have
looked for ways to help local economies hurt by 1990s restrictions.

Living in the shadow of the 10,000-foot peaks of the Wallowa Mountains, the 7,000 residents of Wallowa County have paid dearly for the protection of the Chinook salmon. After the 1993 Chinook listing, the county's three mills shut down and unemployment shot to 15 percent, the highest in the state.

Tensions ran so high that someone tried to torch the local office of the U.S. Forest Service; two local environmentalists were hung in effigy.

"We thought this was going to be a ghost town," recalls Nancy Waters, human-relations manager at Wallowa Memorial Hospital.

At the time, Mr. Goebel and Sustainable Northwest were scouting out communities in need. He began meeting with local officials in the back of a donut shop. Not everyone was hospitable. "I had one rancher tell me, 'What is a city boy with a city-boy haircut trying to tell us country folks what
to do?'" Mr. Goebel recalls. In 1997, Mr. Goebel and the local community started a nonprofit group, Wallowa Resources, to carry out job-development programs. Sustainable Northwest gave the group about $150,000 to hire a director and a staff of 10. "We knew we didn't have much time to get something going in this county," says the director, Diane Snyder, a mother of three who left her job as the county's planner to take the new job.

Not every project was a winner. Early on, the group rented a portable sawmill (ED: similar to the Sawmills & Edgers unit shown here) to cut odd lengths of lumber, such as four-by-fours, out of fallen and unhealthy trees. Then the group realized how small the four-by-four market was. It recouped most of its $24,000 investment by
selling the lumber for wood chips. "We learned it's important to learn about a market before making a product," Ms. Snyder says.

In March, Wallowa Resources invested about $100,000 to reopen the Joseph Timber Co. mill, after its other sources of funding had been exhausted. The group took a 10 percent equity position and 50 percent management control of the mill. The mill now sells timber cut from new-growth trees under the label Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities to a Bend, Ore., home developer.

OMED: I noticed this piece in the Wallowa  County Chieftain, and contacted Mr. Carlton, who works for the WSJ, but is stationed in San Francisco. He said that the article was originally twice as long, and scheduled to be a front page lead, but because of current events was resized and pushed back to the "B" section.  Coming as I do from a family of loggers and commercial fishermen, the truth of this piece is evident to me.  The times they are a'changing.  New ways must be found to do old jobs.  

Reprinted by permission of Jim Carlton  (C) 2001

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