Impact of wilderness plan on timber industry reignites jobs vs. trees debate

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

QUILCENE — Has the timber industry’s time come and gone on the North Olympic Peninsula?

A set-aside plan to take 21 percent of Olympic National Forest out of potential timber production and designate it as wilderness would simply feed into a trend away from logging and into a growing service economy that focuses more on recreation and tourism, according to a study by Headwaters Economics Associate Director Ben Alexander.

The study was commissioned and paid for by
the Quilcene-based Wild Olympics Campaign, which has put forward a similar, though less sweeping, proposal.

But forest industry representative Carol Johnson of the North Olympic Timber Action Committee said the proposal — which is by U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, a Belfair Democrat whose 6th Congressional District includes Clallam and Jefferson counties, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Bothell — would cost valuable jobs by affecting 132,000 acres of the 633,600-acre federally managed forest.

“We hold to our position of no net loss of working forests,” Johnson said this week.

“If it goes to wilderness, it would remove any of that acreage from any future potential economic use, remembering that most of the Olympic National Forest is already in preserved status,” she added.

“What we lose is losing more of a very small number.”

Under what Dicks and Murray call their watershed conservation plan, Olympic National Park also could buy and absorb into the park about 20,000 acres of private land through willing-seller, willing-buyer transactions compared with the 37,000 acres proposed by the Wild Olympics Campaign.

The Dicks-Murray plan, introduced in November, also would designate as wilderness 4,000 fewer acres than the Wild Olympics proposal.

Both plans appear to add the same 23 river systems that lie in part within Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest to the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers systems.

“The proposal could provide significant economic benefits by building on the Peninsula’s current competitive strengths centered around its spectacular public lands,” Quilcene resident Connie Gallant, chairwoman of the Wild Olympics Campaign, said in a statement.

The study was done by Bozeman, Mont.-based Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research company whose mission is to “improve community development and land management decisions in the West,” according to its website, www.headwaterseconomics.org.

Gallant said Wild Olympics would not divulge the cost of the study at the request of Headwaters.

The study concludes the Dicks-Murray proposal would build on the growing “amenity economy” of ­Clallam, Jefferson, Mason and Grays Harbor counties.

Features such as recreational opportunities, good quality of life and superior water quality “attract people and business to the region and further strengthen services sectors that already are growing and represent a current competitive strength,” the report concluded.

It noted that there were 707,000 visits to Olympic National Forest in 2010, with each visitor spending an average of $91 a day in the area.

In contrast, timber employment shrank by 2,321 jobs in the four counties during the past 10 years, and the share of timber-related wages and salaries fell from 14.2 percent to 8.8 percent.

During that same period, private, non-timber-related employment grew by 5,043 jobs, with travel and tourism accounting for 19 percent of that total in 2009.

“The region’s broader economy has decoupled from timber-related sources,” Alexander said in the study.

“A productive approach to economic development would focus less on the potential loss of a small number of future timber jobs,” he said.

“It also would pay close attention to community qualities, transportation connectivity and workforce skills that are more likely to attract and retain higher-paying service sectors.”

Alexander said in an interview that the economies of Clallam and Jefferson counties already are growing at a faster rate than non-metropolitan areas of Washington and the rest of the U.S.

“When you think about the role of public lands and resources, you are talking about how can those resources support growing sectors of the economy,” Alexander said in an interview.

The Dicks-Murray plan, he said, “would enhance the experience for those activities which are already dominant activities in the forest.”

Johnson disputed Alexander’s findings.

She said federal regulations already have taken 97 percent of Olympic National Forest out of timber production.

In addition, every 1,000 acres of privately owned working forests — land that is harvested routinely — create 12 jobs and $532,000 in annual wages.

“Federal forests are a public asset that are supposed to be used for multiple uses,” she said.

The report says job losses are acceptable to build on “natural amenities,” Johnson said.

“We believe we can have those natural amenities and we can have timber production, which creates jobs.”

A Port of Port Angeles study concluded the Wild Olympics Campaign’s proposal could cost up to 72 jobs in the forest industry.

A $2,000 study commissioned and funded by the Wild Olympics Campaign and released two weeks ago concluded the Dicks-Murray proposal would have little impact on the timber industry because most of the area it would take out of production includes roadless areas, old-growth forests and difficult-to-harvest tracts that would not be harvested anyway.

The Dicks-Murray plan would take 4,292 acres, or 2.2 percent of the national forest’s timber base that’s available for ground base and cable logging, out of timber production, while 183,300 acres would remain available, the earlier study by Vashon Island forestry consultant Derek Churchill concluded.

About 1,500 acres of Olympic National Forest are commercial-thinned annually, the report said.

“It is unlikely the draft wilderness proposal would affect the current timber volume coming off the forest,” it said.

For its economic study, Headwaters developed an economic profile system in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The report drew on statistics from sources that included the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Wild Olympics Campaign is spearheaded by the Wild Olympics Coalition, which includes Olympic Park Associates, the Olympic Forest Coalition, the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, the North Olympic Group-Sierra Club, the Washington Wilderness Coalition, The Mountaineers, the Pew Campaign for America’s Wilderness, the Sierra Club, American Rivers and American Whitewater.

The full report, including economic profiles of ­Clallam, Jefferson, Mason and Grays Harbor counties, is available at http://tinyurl.com/7rdm472.

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: March 18. 2012 6:22PM
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