The War Amongst the Trees

Julie Camp

Writer’s comment: Whenever I am at home, I cannot turn the page of a newspaper or the channel on the television without hearing about the old-growth forest controversy. So when it was announced in our English 1 class that we had to write a research paper, I decided I wanted to uncover the real story of the loggers and the owls who cannot seem to share these giant forests. After spending hours in the library looking for books that always seemed to be missing, I finally discovered that this subject was one of great importance not just to environmentalists and politicians but also to anyone who has a home derived from wood or loves to experience the thrill of the outdoors. I decided I needed to show the complexity of this issue so people might actually stop closing their ears and eyes to this enormous problem.
      English has never been a very good subject for me, but, by chance, I stumbled upon a teacher who appreciated my casual style of writing and creativity. Maybe it was the confidence I gained from the grade I received on my first paper or simply the fact that Susan Lonac had a way of making English interesting that helped me begin to write in a more “elegant” manner (I believe that is the word she used). All I know is that this was the first time I have ever enjoyed English and the first time that anyone has wanted to use my paper as “the right way to do a paper” instead of as the wrong way. My family found it quite humorous that I actually produced a paper that someone else appreciated, let alone wanted to publish for other people to read.
      Finally, I have to thank my suitemates for listening to me preach about this controversial issue every time I found another fact that enraged or astounded me; you guys are the greatest. But my biggest thanks goes to my instructor, Susan Lonac, for all her help, guidance, and advice. She believed I had done something special with this paper. Maybe she was right.
—Julie Camp

Instructor’s comment: Julia submitted this essay as her research paper, the final and probably the most demanding assignment of the quarter in English 1. Many students find it easiest to approach their research topic from one side of the issue in question—for example, researching and analyzing only one group's position on an animal rights issue—thus automatically controlling the direction and scope of the paper's discussion. Julia, however, ambitiously decided to explore both sides of an issue about which she was both curious and concerned: the management of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. In less judicious hands, such an approach might lead to a diffuse, too-general ramble through the relevant facts and figures, instead of the carefully developed analysis the assignment requires. Julia, however, has artfully developed a concise, focused examination of opposing arguments, together with a forcefully supported proposal of how to reconcile the two sides. She thoughtfully balances the needs of the endangered creatures that "thrive in the safety of the old-growth canopy" with the potential "devastation" faced by economically beleaguered logging towns. I found her discussion impressively fair-minded and even-handed, her research thorough, and her prose lucid and direct. Her essay proves a fine model for students who need to write a research paper on a big or particularly thorny topic.
—Susan Lonac, English Department

When westward expansion brought settlers to the Northwest in the 1800s, they discovered that coniferous trees “forty feet in circumference [that] shot two-hundred feet straight up” flourished in the forests of the Pacific coast (Ervin 55). These early pioneers found the opportunity for economic growth in logging these vast forests of towering trees unlike any they had seen before. Today, the timber industry still remains the backbone of economic support for Washington, Oregon, and northwestern California, but an inevitable conflict has arisen between humans and our environment. A struggle over the control of the use of the old-growth forests threatens the balance of the ecosystem and the stability of the economy in the Pacific Northwest.
      Each year, 55,000 acres of Northwest forest land succumb to chainsaws to feed the ever-increasing foreign and domestic demands for lumber (Time 21). To profitably satisfy these demands, old-growth trees, those of two hundred years or more, are sought by Northwest logging companies. At this rate, environmentalists believe the unique ecosystem created by old-growth forests is in danger of being destroyed. To protect the old-growth forests and the plants and animals found there, a reduction must be made in the amount of old-growth trees logged each year. Yet reducing the amount of logging in the Pacific Northwest decreases the current number of jobs involved in harvesting the forests and the revenue received by both the companies and the government for their processed logs. To fully understand the current conflict over the old-growth forests, we must look at what each side stands to lose and then suggest a possible balanced solution.
      The most controversial issue concerning the conflict over the old-growth forests is the effect that logging has on the Northern spotted owl. On July 23, 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the pressure of environmentalists and scientific studies, listed the spotted owl as a “threatened” species, one step away from “endangered,” and entitled themselves to protecting the owl from hunting, trading, or federal action that could destroy its breeding or feeding grounds (Carey 13). This listing came on the heels of years of extensive studies of the spotted owl and its habitat conducted by environmental groups, the timber industry, and governmental researchers. These studies resulted in recommendations, such as the one made in early 1990 by a committee headed by the U.S. Forest Service’s chief, Jack Ward Thomas, calling for “30-40 percent of public forests to be exempted from logging to protect the remaining 3000-6000 owl pairs” in the Northwest. Yet, by late 1990, there had been no decrease in the rate of logging to accommodate the owl (Abate 8).
      As early as 1971, biologists had warned the Forest Service and the timber industry that old-growth logging could endanger the spotted owl, which is a slow breeder. Studies have shown that the spotted owl’s major prey, the red tree vole and the Northern flying squirrel, thrive in the environment of the protective old-growth forest and that when the forest that an owl lives in is logged, it will travel hundreds of miles to feed in distant ancient forests. As each acre of ancient trees falls, the chance of extinction for the spotted owl increases because of the decline in food and the increased distances between habitats. For these reasons, the spotted owl has been labeled by the Fish and Wildlife Service as an “indicator species”; in other words, it is a measure of how other creatures and the old-growth ecosystem as a whole are faring (Carey 17). This explains the importance of the spotted owl: as the owls’ numbers decline, so does the condition of its unique habitat.
      Although this nocturnal raptor has become the symbol of those who are struggling to save the old-growth forests, we must not let the spotted owl overshadow the other important factors that are affected by the loss of old growth.
      The heated debate over the old-growth forests began in the early 1980s, when scientists published studies documenting the unique relationship between each living organism of the Pacific Northwest ancient forests. Prior to the early 1970s, scientists did not have reason to believe that there was anything unique about old-growth forests, the only rain forests in the U.S. But scientist Jerry Franklin, along with his team of researchers from the University of Washington and Oregon State University, revealed that the characteristic multi-layered forest canopies, fertile soil, abundance of lichens and mosses, and diverse species of wildlife of ancient forests are interdependent and play an integral part in the forest’s prosperity (Ervin 13). They function as one unit, much like the parts of a machine, with their main goal as survival. If the old-growth trees continue to be logged, the other organisms that depend on them will die.
      Scientists and environmentalists alike emphasize that these discoveries are only the beginning of what secrets the old-growth forests may hold. They feel that many species of plants native to coniferous ancient forests could be capable of healing and curing human ailments and diseases. Also, studies show that up to 1500 different invertebrates thrive in the safety of the old-growth canopy (Ervin 15). The ancient trees of the Northwest also create biodiversity. Whether deer survive off the lichen on the trunks of the trees in winter or rodents feed off the fungi growing among the trees’ roots, these forests provide habitats for a multitude of species. In August 1991, the California Department of Fish and Game proved that other animals are at risk when they listed the marble murrelet, a water bird believed to nest only in old growth, as an endangered species (Abate 9). Scientists, as well as supporters of nature conservation, believe that valuable plant life and diverse wildlife will be lost because of the destruction of the Pacific Northwest old-growth forests.
      Those who support protecting the old-growth forests point also to the major role the forests play in the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest. These forests are responsible for maintaining soil value and the quality of air and water in Washington and Oregon. The foliage of their multi-layered canopies cleanses the air of unwanted dust particles through the moisture in their needles. The old growth also acts as a giant filtration system; it prevents a runoff of water and soil that would swell streams and rivers, threatening fish-spawning areas and water quality with excessive sedimentation. Fallen logs and needles decompose on the forest floor, providing the nutrients necessary for fertile soil while the root structure of the enormous trees braces the soil against landslides and erosion (Guy 2). Today, only one-tenth of the original forests in the continental U.S. remains undisturbed, and only one-tenth of the ancient forests that once covered the Northwest still stands (Watkins 14). Those who support the preservation of the old-growth forests recognize their value to the environment, the wildlife, and the people of the Northwest.
      Now that we have considered the environmental issues in the conflict, we must realize what the people of the Northwest will lose economically if the harvesting of the old-growth forests halts.
      The major economic issue involved in the old-growth forest struggle is that of the loss of jobs. Although a definite number has not yet surfaced, estimates suggest that from 9,000 to 25,000 jobs out of a work force of 168,000 will be lost if ancient-forest logging is stopped (Congressional Quarterly 2611). This tally does not include the jobs that have already been lost over the last decade because of diminishing forests or automation. The U.S. Forest Service predicts that in the next 15 years technological changes will displace 13 percent of the current work force. These are people whose fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were raised in the forest, felling trees. They feel that they are “as much a part of this rugged landscape as the black-tailed deer and elk that inhabit their forests” (Guy 61-62).
      Loggers feel they are victims in this struggle over the old-growth forests since lack of reforestation occurred in previous generations. The nation’s appetite for lumber has demanded enough old-growth trees from the Northwest each year to fill a convoy of trucks 20,000 miles long (Satchell 28). Although the industry’s reforestation practices have improved tremendously over the past decade, the reinvestment is too little, too late. No reforestation occurred fifty to a hundred years ago, so it is no surprise that loggers today pay for the mistakes of yesterday through layoffs because of lack of timber. A logger of 44 years acknowledges these mistakes: “There was tremendous waste in those days. Profit was the name of the game. We thought we would never run out of timber. We started way too late on reforestation” (Time 21). In the face of the threat to halt all old-growth tree harvesting, second-, third-, and fourth-generation loggers face unemployment and ruin because of earlier mistakes and automation.
      Not only will people lose jobs, but whole towns face devastation. Towns such as Forks, Washington, the self-proclaimed “Logging Capital of the World,” have an economy dependent on the timber industry. If the loggers, millers, and truck drivers, the majority of the town’s population, do not have trees to harvest, process, or transport, they do not have the money to spend that supports the restaurants and stores of the town. Instead of the collapse of only the loggers, it means the demise of the whole town. This economic chain of events could lead to the total unraveling of many Northwest communities. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management did a study that indicated that there would be “increased rates of domestic disputes, divorce, acts of violence, delinquency, vandalism, suicide, alcoholism, and other social problems” if all old-growth logging were discontinued.
      Another loss would occur in the revenue to the towns, counties, and state governments. In 1990, the Forest Service earned $950 million from the sales of raw old-growth timber and national forest land. Of that figure, 25 percent is recirculated through the state and national court system and government to benefit those states that earned it (Congressional Quarterly 2612). The money that goes to the state is then returned to the people through public schools, road construction, and other governmentally funded projects. Areas like Oregon, Washington, and northwestern California stand to lose millions of dollars of state funds if the timber industry is halted. This loss will create cutbacks in county and state budgets and an increase in county and state taxes. Schools will not receive new textbooks; teachers will not receive salary increases. Road construction will not continue at an adequate rate, nor will it begin where needed. The loss of any portion of this money will greatly affect not only those trying to support themselves who have lost their jobs due to the discontinuation of old-growth logging, but also it will hurt county and state funding of public projects that benefit the public.
      The final loss that will be experienced economically is one every person in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the nation will experience: the increase of lumber prices because of the limited supply of timber. Old-growth trees more efficiently and profitably satisfy the nation’s need for lumber due to their impressive size. If old-growth harvesting were stopped and only second-growth forests were harvested, the supply of forests and trees would diminish rapidly. Also the smaller second-growth trees yield less wood and fewer products than older trees. The bark of old-growth trees supplies fuel for boilers that produce steam for generating electricity; the pulp, just inside the bark, is sent to pulp mills to be used for paper products; and logs can be peeled into thin veneer and made into plywood. A second-growth tree can yield only about half the amount that an old-growth tree can (Ervin 179). Timber and national forest land prices would sky-rocket due to the shortage of land and trees. Higher prices would have to be paid to purchase timber from Canada and the South. The cost of a house would increase along with the costs of household items like toilet paper, tissues, and pads of paper. The effects of the loss of ancient forests to logging would be felt by the people of the Pacific Northwest as well as the rest of its current trading partners.
      As sensitive an issue as this is, how can there be a solution that balances the two opposing sides equally? Although there are many proposed solutions to this problem, the best solution to the old-growth conflict is the limitation of the harvest of ancient forest to half of the remaining acres, the restriction of clear cutting, and the imposition of an export tax on raw logs. This plan balances the interests of both parties.
      Allowing for an equal division of the remaining old growth provides loggers with jobs while preserving the unique ecosystem of the forests. This will reduce the number of loggers necessary to work the forests, although it also results in the loss of some habitat for wildlife and plant growth. Unlike discontinuing all logging or proceeding to log all remaining trees of the ancient forests, dividing the balance of forests recognizes the importance of our environment and our economy. Despite these losses, this plan is the only one that takes into consideration the needs of each side.
      Restricting clear cutting and adopting selective logging methods will allow younger and newly-planted forests to benefit from the fallen logs and shrubbery characteristic of old-growth forests. Clear cutting is the removal of all trees and vegetation from an area. It consists of removal of shrubbery, the felling of all trees, and the burning of fallen logs and branches after the site is cleared of all valuable wood. Clear cutting strips the soil of nutrients, increases landslides and erosion, and leaves wildlife without a habitat. Selective logging is taking only the best of the trees, leaving smaller ones to mature and leaving the vegetation and fallen logs to protect the plant and animal life of the region and protect the soil. This latter method will in time give the newer trees a chance to develop the biodiversity and the fragile ecosystem of its older relative.
      Imposing a duty on exported raw logs makes more logs available for northwestern mills. Presently, timber companies find that foreign nations such as Japan, China, and Korea are willing to pay up to 40 percent more than American millers for raw logs. In 1989, 4.3 billion board feet of unprocessed logs from a crop of 11.5 billion board feet were shipped from the Northwest to the mills of the Far East. If the quantity of logs is increased for local mills, the trees can remain in the U.S. until they are processed or manufactured. According to 1989 figures, this would create 17,200 jobs to offset the jobs lost by the reduction in old-growth forests (Satchell 28). These created jobs would generate the necessary funds to finance projects on the county and state levels as well as maintain the logging communities’ stability.
      The final benefit of this plan is the revenue created by the export tax. This money can be used to increase aid to independent millers in order to convert mills from processing old-growth logs to processing the smaller second-growth logs and to provide assistance in job training or relocation for unemployed loggers and millers. A 1987 figure showed that with a 5 percent export duty $28 million could be generated to support the timber industry as it adjusts to change (Ervin 235).
      In a time when the world’s biological diversity is threatened by deforestation and industrialization, our dwindling forests need to be preserved. At this very same time, our fragile economy needs the stabilization of revenue and jobs. When solutions to the current struggle over control of the old-growth forests are discussed, a balance must be sustained between our environment and our economy. The Wilderness Society concluded in its 1991 report that only 2.3 million acres of old-growth forest remain on the public and private forest lands of Oregon and Washington. The timber industry and environmentalists alike feel a sense of urgency to reach an agreement before it is too late. At our current rate of logging, the old-growth forest, its ecosystem, and its loggers will disappear in less than 15 years (Watkins 12).


Abate, Tom. “Which bird is the better indicator species for old-growth forest?” Bioscience Jan. 1992: 8-9.

Carey, Andrew, Janice Reid, and Scott Horton. “Spotted Owl Density in Northwest California.” Journal of Wildlife Management 54.1 (1990): 11-18.

Davis, Phillip A. Congressional Quarterly 4 Sept., 1991: 2611-12.

“Environment’s Little Big Bird.” Time 16 April 1990: 21.

Ervin, Keith. Fragile Majesty. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1989.

Gup, Ted. “Owl vs. Man.” Time 25 June 1990: 56-65.

Satchell, Michael. “The Endangered Logger.” U.S. News and World Report 25 June 1990: 27-29.

Watkins, T. H. “The Boundaries of Loss.” Wilderness Spring 1991: 12-16.