by Jerry Partain

If you follow the debate over forestry policies in the Pacific Northwest, you've probably heard from environmentalists who say that job losses in the timber industry have been caused by the new sawmill technology rather than environmental regulations.

Recently my attention was called to a study by Bill Freudenburg at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studied employment trends between 1947 and 1993 and found no "statistically believable evidence of a 'spotted owl' effect on logging jobs." He concluded that if environmental laws had any effect on jobs in the timber industry, it was to increase them.

My first clue to Freudenburg's biased outlook on this subject was his use of the terms "chopping down trees" and "mowing down trees." Like a lot of people, he doesn't approve of harvesting trees as an agricultural crop. I'm sure he would not refer to a wheat harvest as "chopping down" wheat stems.

Employment in the period Freudenburg studied certainly did drop, and it dropped partly because of technology changes that saved lives and reduced operating costs. It dropped also because companies harvested old growth timber at a rapid rate, thus reducing the availability of this resource.

After World War II returning servicemen were intent on resuming their peacetime lives after four years of war. Logging and timber manufacturing expanded rapidly throughout the Northwest beginning in 1945. The rapid harvesting was done not because loggers love to "chop down" trees, but because they responded to an unprecedented demand for homes, furniture, paper and a thousand other valuable products made from trees.

The large increase in logging just after the war set the stage for a significant reduction of logging jobs when the demand was met. It's what we expected. It's what happened in the Northeast, the Great Lakes states and the Southeast in much earlier times.

In 1960 I predicted at an economic development seminar that the 300 or so sawmills we then had in Humboldt County would drop to about 10 or 15 by 1980. We knew that the industry needed to make the transition from harvesting residual old growth to the management and harvesting of young growth. It was the pattern followed all across the country at different times in our history. The difference was that all of the old growth had been cut in the rest of the country, while we still had millions of acres of old trees left to fight over.

Among the good scientific works of today, there are many examples of junk science molded to produce a desired result. This was best displayed locally by faulty studies on the habitat needs of the spotted owl. Freudenburg has produced the same kind of work to show that environmental regulations have not only not caused job losses but have actually created more jobs in the industry.

Despite Freudenburg's work and other studies negating the "spotted owl" effect on our labor market, I think the truth is contained in the answer to this simple question: If the Six Rivers National Forest has a million acres of timber land and its management sets aside 85 percent of that for purposes other than timber growing and harvesting, doesn't that have an effect on jobs in the timber industry?

That's what has been done throughout the Northwest under the Northwest Forest Plan (Option 9).

Yes, technology and the shift to harvesting second-growth timber have reduced timber employment. Fewer hours of human labor are required to produce 1,000 board feet of lumber. But the reduction in the number of acres available for tree growing and harvesting has cut additional jobs.

Of course, the environmental laws have sown a rich increase in jobs for biologists, geologists and other "ists" to meet the new requirements. The costs of employing these people is borne by the buyers of timber products.

The same is not true for other forest resources that have come under the protection of environmental laws. Do recreationists pay the costs of the benefits they get from the use of federal forests? What percentage of management costs do the lovers of wilderness pay? How about watershed protection? Do water users pay the full cost?

The next time someone tells you that timber job losses were due to technology and other changes in the industry -- not environmental protection -- ask them how you can take millions of acres of timber land out of production without reducing the number of people turning those natural resources into lumber?


Jerry Partain is a retired professor of forestry from Humboldt State University and former director of the California Department of Forestry.

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents