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Two Old Memos

Is time running short for timber compromise?

I’m looking at two memos that I wrote in July of 1991 when I worked for Congressman Peter DeFazio as a natural resource policy advisor. The memos were written on two consecutive days to reflect two meetings, one with the timber industry and the other with the environmental community. Earlier that year, all timber harvests on federal forests were halted by a federal court injunction. Thousands of jobs were at risk and the economies for many rural communities were in limbo. The two meetings were to determine if any form of compromise legislation was possible and what level of support we could expect from either side in the controversy.

As I read the old memos, a comparison with the current controversy over DeFazio’s O&C forest bill is unavoidable. The memos show the vitriolic rhetoric thrown at DeFazio for his current O&C forest compromise is nothing new. Back then, just like today, DeFazio was trying to create compromise legislation to provide relief for rural communities and workers while also providing significant environmental protections and safeguards.

The memos also clearly indicate that neither side was willing to support any compromise at all. Both sides were ready and willing to live with zero harvest, but for very different reasons, regardless of the impact on communities and workers.

The meeting with the environmental community went as expected. They were opposed to DeFazio’s bill and they would oppose any bill that included any timber harvest at all. With zero harvest as the current reality, any compromise was seen as a step back for them. I concluded that, unless a bill had everything they wanted, they would not support it, or even consider it. And, while I was not surprised by their lack of support for the bill, I was baffled by their anger, suspicion and disrespect. I had hoped they would look at the big picture and try to maintain a better working relationship with a congressman who clearly cared about protecting forest ecosystems.

The timber industry meeting produced very different reasons for why they would not support a compromise bill. The industry representatives told me their members wanted them to get tougher and stop trying to cut a deal. And that “it’s better to go down fighting than to give in to the total unreasonable demands of the forest activists.” They believed the environmentalists had overplayed their hand, and in a strategic blunder of epic proportions, they indicated they would get a better deal if they waited for a public backlash to develop — a backlash that never materialized.

The industry was slow to recognize its new reality. The economic and political tides were not moving in its favor. The Oregon economy had diversified steadily since the mid 1980s and by 1991 the handwriting was on the wall. While timber would still be an important part of the Oregon economy, its days as “the big dog” were over. Meanwhile, politics were not going the industry's way either. Barbara Roberts was elected governor in 1990, and George H.W. Bush would lose to Bill Clinton in 1992.

While the industry waited for that public backlash to develop, the forest activists had reason to believe they could get it all if they held out. Or at least, the longer they held out, the better the deal. My memos show that both sides would stand firmly behind their own bills and strongly oppose all others; there would be no compromise for Mother Timber or Mother Earth.

Now, in a strange turn of events, it appears the forest activists may be making a similar strategic blunder of their own. While the industry appears to have learned from the past, and has been willing to embrace compromise, the forest activists continue to oppose any compromise at all. They continue to hold out for zero harvest while they berate and demonize progressive Democrats like DeFazio and Ron Wyden. I wonder how they believe they can get a better deal without a working relationship with our congressional delegation? And then there are those pesky mid-term elections right around the corner that could change the balance of power in the Congress. Even without alienating DeFazio and Wyden, can they continue to assume they will get a better deal the longer they wait?

A good friend of mine once told me the problem with the timber industry was that it was always ready to accept the previous deal, the one that was no longer on the table. That could be about to change. The shoe may now be on the other foot. With several Oregon counties on the brink of financial collapse, and with the balance of power in Congress up for grabs, the tides may be changing. And the forest activists? They might soon find themselves wishing they could accept the previous deal. You know, the one that is no longer on the table.