Rey Of Hope

The national forestry debate comes to Republic.

On Saturday, the national debate over President George Bush's forest policies came to Republic, Wash., in the person of Mark Rey. As Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, Rey is political overseer to the Chief of the Forest Service and forestry advisor to the President.

Rey came in response to an appeal to the White House by Congressman George Nethercutt for help saving Republic's only sawmill. Local leaders consider its 87 jobs crucial to the economy of Republic (population 940) and Ferry County (population 7,260). But the issues raised here can stand in for a number of rural communities across the nation facing shifting economies.

My day began with coffee and conversation at a Republic restaurant and later in the elementary school before the hearing started. Joining an audience of 500, I listened to 30 speakers, primarily mill workers and Republic area residents, describe how mill closure would affect them and how they thought it could be prevented. Nethercutt and Rey were among 40 public officials attending. Other notables included Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland and the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Regional Forester Linda Goodman.

Themes running through my conversations and the public statements included the following:

* Out-of-area logging opponents, specifically the Kettle Range Conservation Group (KRCG), dominate Colville National Forest management to the disadvantage of local communities and forest health.

* Active forest management (i.e., more logging), as practiced on private land and the Colville Indian Reservation, is preferred to the preservationist philosophy of Colville National Forest managers.

* Few local job alternatives exist for laid-off sawmill workers who don't want to sacrifice rural lifestyles for city jobs.

* President Bush owes a debt to rural voters who supported him in the last election.

Speaking last, Undersecretary Rey conveyed President Bush's personal interest in Republic's fate, then announced four measures to increase timber harvest in the Colville National Forest. These included "fast tracking" two timber sales through administrative processes, as well as revising next year's Colville National Forest logging plan (more logging) and the Pacific Northwest Region's timber pricing plan (lower prices for government timber).

To the outrage of some, Rey explained that "fast tracking" timber sales will require collaboration with KRCG. Notably absent from the speaker sign-up categories was one for environmentalists, and no environmental group representative spoke. However, KRCG Executive Director Tim Coleman was on hand with information packets.

I asked Coleman to comment on repeated assertions that KRCG uses Forest Service appeal procedures to oppose virtually all timber sales in the Colville National Forest, irrespective of economic or environmental merit. He denied such claims, citing his group's work with the Colville Community Forest Coalition. Other Coalition members include the U.S. Forest Service, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company (owner of the threatened Republic mill). He also mentioned two sales that KRCG actively supports, totaling nearly 10 million board feet.

KRCG's position is that the issues plaguing Republic are more complicated than simply allowing more harvests. The global oversupply of wood products, Canadian imports and the resulting low lumber prices are the real culprits. The group rejects Rey and Nethercutt's view that harvesting more federal timber will stop this mill closure, or numerous others pending across the U.S. Included in KRCG's packet was a Wilderness Society-funded report by EcoNorthwest of Eugene, Ore. Evidently prepared specifically for Rey's visit to Republic, the report details several economic arguments against increasing National Forest logging to help rural communities, particularly logging in currently roadless areas.

For those who took their turns at the podium, with a rare chance to communicate directly with the White House, such complexities don't provide easy answers. Obviously broader issues were on the table than the fate of 87 sawmill workers.