Little Guy vs. Big Timber 

An enviro’s view of Sen. Burns’ Forest Health Summit

The “forest health summit” held by Sen. Conrad Burns recently in Kalispell had all the symbolic trappings of a very different forestry meeting 93 years ago. But while Burns’ rhetorical flourishes were similar to those employed by Teddy Roosevelt’s emissary, his aim was much less true.

It was a skeptical crowd of 800 that filled a Boise theater in 1907 to hear young Gifford Pinchot defend President Roosevelt’s controversial decision to carve millions of acres of national forests out of the public domain in Idaho and Montana. Huge timber barons were scalping America’s forests, said Pinchot, America’s first professional forester. Having wiped out the towering pines of the Midwest, they were moving in fast on the virgin forests of the Rocky Mountain region. Roosevelt’s timber policy was “rather to help the small man making a living than to help the big man to make a profit.”

According to J. Anthony Lukas’ titanic history of early-1900s America, Big Trouble, Pinchot’s Boise audience responded with “liberal applause,” a considerable feat given the vicious attacks against him by Idaho’s political powers. In going to Boise, Pinchot was directly responding to blistering tirades by Idaho’s senior senator, Weldon Heyburn. A fierce ally of the timber corporations, Heyburn despised Pinchot and blasted Roosevelt’s forest policies.

Heyburn’s blasts were for naught. Pinchot and Roosevelt’s populist defense of the “small man” against the large timber companies of the day firmly established the Forest Service as a heroic agency in the American imagination. The protests of big timber companies were swept aside from Teddy’s bully pulpit.

Sen. Burns apparently learned a lesson from Heyburn’s failed campaign to put the public’s forest domain in the hands of timber barons. Today, Burns is using the tactics of Roosevelt to achieve the goals of Sen. Heyburn. At the Kalispell meeting, Burns twisted the rhetoric of the “small man” against the Forest Service while serving allegiance to Big Timber.

The Kalispell meeting reached its climax with angry volleys from a small logger and an independent mill owner against the Forest Service for scaling back timber sales in recent years. Having orchestrated an emotional climax by the small man on the brink, Burns sternly lectured the Forest Service to get the cut out.

The only figure on the scene missing was Plum Creek Timber Company, the 800-pound gorilla of Montana’s timber industry. Plum Creek’s absence at Burns’ forest summit was conspicuous because the company bears large responsibility for the tenuous condition of both Montana’s forests and its rural communities. And Plum Creek stands to gain most handsomely if the Forest Service increases logging.

It’s no secret that Plum Creek’s 1.5 million acres in western Montana have been cut at an unsustainable rate for the past 20 years (including Champion International’s cutover lands purchased by Plum Creek in 1993). This cut-and-run logging has created a variety of “forest health” problems. Overcut watersheds flood regularly and bleed sediment, while wildlife habitat is fragmented by clearcuts and roads.

On public lands, Plum Creek’s forest liquidation practices have forced the Forest Service to suspend dozens of planned timber sales on intermingled lands to mitigate damage to water quality and wildlife. Those canceled timber sales add up to at least 50,000 logging truck loads this decade in western Montana.

Of more immediate concern to Montana’s few remaining independent mills, however, Plum Creek is poised to gobble up most federal timber sales. The Seattle-based company is scraping the bottom of its enormous timber barrel, and it needs public timber to keep its mills open. Loggers and independent mill owners privately acknowledge that Plum Creek is able to outbid every other mill because of competitive advantages created through aggressive logging and land development.

Unfortunately for Montana’s small timber producers, Sen. Burns deliberately evaded these topics at his forest summit. That may be because he had a direct role in maintaining Plum Creek’s advantage in federal timber auctions. As a leading exporter of raw logs, Plum Creek was subject to a 1990 law that prohibited the sale of federal timber to log exporters, a practice known as “substitution” under certain log market conditions.

A coalition of environmentalists and timber companies sought to enforce this anti-substitution provision in 1996 in federal court. In response, log export lobbyists prevailed on Burns and Washington Sen. Slade Gorton to attach a budget rider that nullified the anti-substitution law. While this stealth rider was opposed by most of Montana’s few remaining independent mills, its passage solidified Plum Creek’s position.

Plum Creek hosted a big fundraiser for Sen. Burns in Seattle a few years ago. So it’s no surprise that Burns carries the company’s political water. But it is quite cheeky for him to do so in the name of forest health and the “small man.” Instead, he should stand proud for the short-term profits of the “big man,” who once again is moving in on the public forests of Montana.

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