They're lumberjacks and they're not OK

Residents of rural logging communities like Hayfork, Calif., hoped the Bush administration's fuel-reduction plan would help them escape poverty. But as Bush slashes economic assistance programs and turns to Big Timber to do the work, their dreams are going up in smoke.

Published July 27, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

In the Hayfork Watershed Research and Training Center a wall is devoted to monitoring the socioeconomic health of the town's 1,800 residents. The numbers are not pretty: 80 percent of the town's kids use the free breakfast and lunch programs at school; 24 percent of the community is unemployed; rising numbers of families are requesting food stamps. The soup kitchen and free showers aren't quantifiable, but everyone knows where to find them.

For generations logging was the economic engine of Hayfork, Calif., but the days of pulling big trees out of the forest are gone. Regular paychecks are few and far between, and people hang on by stringing together odd jobs and piecemeal work. Many members of the younger generation have moved to urban areas to find work. The biggest emerging industry in Hayfork is signaled by a surge in the number of methamphetamine labs. Every year for the past decade the economic news has grown worse: fewer signs for meaningful, long-term work; more kids in poverty.

The town of Hayfork, which sits in the middle of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest 200 miles north of San Francisco, is similar to thousands of other rural communities in the West that have faced economic crisis over the past decade. Like all other communities situated next to the forest, Hayfork also faces the threat of wildfire every summer and fall. But, paradoxically, fire and a planned shift to forest-restoration-based jobs sparked a ray of economic hope for the town. In 1989, in a move to help rural logging communities become self-sufficient, the first Bush administration created the Economic Action Program. New wood-products industries got money for retraining, technical assistance and marketing so that communities could use smaller, historically "lower-value" trees. Furniture, wood floors and biomass energy were among the fledgling cottage industries, with forest conservation and economic stability the prevailing goal. Along with fire-prevention plans such as an effort at comprehensive fuel reduction in forests, the new industry of forest restoration promised the chance of a livelihood.

But the second Bush administration has undone the work of the first. Even as it has touted its Healthy Forests Restoration Act, billed as a way to reduce wildfires by returning forests to their natural, healthy state, Bush has been wielding a budget-cutting ax. In 2001, the Bush administration slashed EAP funding to the bone. In the three years since, Congress returned some EAP money to the budget, but in 2004 rural communities lost all EAP funding. Hayfork struggled even when it had grants; without them it is teetering on disaster.

Rural forest communities in the West have long held to conservative principles, and Bush has counted them as one of his key constituencies. But that base, estimated by the Western Governors' Association to number over 11,000 communities, is eroding as he cold-shoulders small towns in favor of big business in the growing debate over how to save our national forests. Communities like Hayfork expected to be included in the planning for forest restoration and to receive economic benefits resulting from legislation like the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. But so far the promises of the bill, like the winds that blow ahead of forest fires, have amounted to little more than hot air.

Last December, as environmentalists howled over the Healthy Forests Restoration Act's streamlining processes -- which raised the image of big timber running rampant in the woods logging old-growth trees -- rural communities looked at the act with hope. The HFRA was the Bush administration's answer to the dangerous buildup of fuel in federal forests, and for rural communities the act suggested there would be chance for them to benefit from Forest Service fuel-reduction dollars.

Given their history of logging and their in-depth knowledge of the local forests -- and because they have perhaps the highest stake in reducing wildfire risk because it is their homes that burn first -- rural forestry workers seem the logical choice to do fuel-reduction work. As one forest community advocate pointed out, "They live in forests because they are forest people, and they are terribly concerned about the demise of the forest."

More specifically, the people in Hayfork expected to have regular meetings with the Forest Service to discuss forest-restoration plans, including those for fuel-reduction projects funded under HFRA, and to go over how they might collaborate with the Forest Service in doing the work. But although Congress authorized such meetings, funding was not set aside for them in the final bill. Thus, with no budget for planning meetings the Forest Service has had little incentive to talk to local communities and has instead given contracts for restoration projects to big companies.

Lynn Jungwirth, director of the Watershed Research and Training Center, seethes over the fact that EAP grants and HFRA projects are out of reach for her community.

"There's been a lot of forward thinking in local communities that pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and now they have to take time out to fight for a program [EAP] that's only $35 million. That's nothing. We're not talking about a $500 million program here," Jungwirth says. "This one is a very good use of taxpayer dollars."

Jungwirth has seen firsthand how much help the EAP grants have brought to rural communities. Her husband, Jim Jungwirth, was one of the first recipients of EAP support in Hayfork. His wood-flooring business, which uses small-diameter timber that in the past was not considered valuable, has been a success. The business now has 12 employees.

Frustration is evident in her voice as Jungwirth explains how Hayfork had become a national leader in innovation, working with the Forest Service and experimenting with new business ideas. She is stunned that her community, which played such a role in the EAP plans, is still mired in poverty.

Jungwirth and Maia Enzer, the director of Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., that works to promote the interdependence of economies and environmental health in rural communities, have heard a litany of excuses as to why EAP funding has been cut. Among the choicest responses from legislators: "It's not one the jobs of the Forest Service to work with rural communities" and "There's a war on." Only sustained, intense pressure resulted in some of the money being restored, Enzer says.

"We know what the EAP economic action program does," Jungwirth says. "It creates a consensus at the local level so more restoration work gets done on public ground than they've done in their own programs. We're that small investment that has such a big multiplier effect. We hope it is not this administration's way of saying, 'We think we already have the votes from the West, so we don't need to help them anymore.'"

Enzer puts it this way: "Rural people don't have a lot of votes, it's easier to pick on our program, we don't have much a voice. In terms of reality, this has been devastating for those of us who helped them get restoration work done for wildlife habitat."

Collaborative planning and forest restoration were key parts of the 10-year National Fire Plan, created by the Western Governors' Association in 2000. Through grants and community meetings, the wide-ranging effort sought input from a vast number of parties to create a plan to prepare communities for wildfire. The Healthy Forests Restoration Act superseded much of the NFP's collaborative processes and instituted a top-down management style that consolidates decision making with the Forest Service and to a smaller extent the Bureau of Land Management. Rural towns have been pushed further out of the loop of restoration projects and fire-safety planning.

Hayfork feels especially stung by the government's abandonment because the community played a key role in developing the fire plans now used by the Forest Service. Jungwirth estimated that Hayfork had already raised nearly $3 million in grants and "bake sale money" for fire planning, fire breaks, and fuel-reduction projects.

Jungwirth repeatedly stresses that without appropriating money for planning at the local level, "money never gets to the ground."

"Communities have built these templates, but if there is not funding for that work, and funding for the [Forest Service] agency staff to participate in meetings, then you can't do it, Jungwirth says. "The rhetoric is there, but reality isn't."

A spokesperson for the Forest Guild blasted the Bush administration's 2005 budget for not providing enough funds for restoration activities, noting that "unrealistic expectations will likely drive the Forest Service to cut down merchantable timber to pay for the real cost of forest thinning." Although the budget for 2005 requests the same $760 million as in 2004, Mark Rey, the undersecretary for natural resources and the environment and a former timber industry lobbyist widely described in the environmental community as a "fox in the henhouse," admitted that a majority of that total will come from "reprogramming," or the shifting of funds from other programs. Those other programs are almost certain to include economic development programs.

"There are monies in our annual budget to accomplish that type of work," says Forest Service planning officer Bill Branham, defending the current allocations the Forest Service makes for collaborating with local communities. "Locally we feel there are sufficient funds to have that work, to hold meetings and conduct outreach. There may be places in the nation where there is not enough money, but locally I don't see that as a constraint."

Branham, who plans timber sales out of the Weaverville Ranger Station in Trinity County, Calif., is familiar with the hardships of rural communities and knows that people are hoping to find contract work through the HFRA.

"There is a feeling that the Forest Service has been slow to respond for the demand to put people to work. Some of that is due to the planning timeline to approve projects, and that gets back to the Endangered Species Act. We need to do surveys to comply with that law."

In the case of large timber harvests, Branham explained that the buyer was free to hire any logging contractor it chose. And in turn, the contractor could hire any workers it chose, whether they were local or not.

Branham says the reality for rural communities such as Weaverville or Hayfork is that the HFRA will not lead to significant economic changes over the long term.

"Funding for fuels-reduction work is declining in the next few years, and the money to do the work is declining and going to places with higher priority to do the work, such as Southern California, where there are lots more people, as opposed to Trinity County. The priority is to put the money where the people are."

"The bang is not here for the politician's buck. And at the same time, there is a dramatic need for that type of fuel-treatment work, because we are surrounded by heavy fuels."

Jungwirth says the overall system is biased toward big industry, but that giving in to Big Timber's lobbyists doesn't necessarily mean local job growth. The big companies bring in mobile work crews that clear out brush or cut down marketable timber, and then move on to the next location.

"We decided to look at what the economic opportunities through public land restoration and maintenance were, because we knew it was happening," Jungwirth recounted. "We tracked it on a GIS map and found out that the work was going to mobile crews on the I-5 corridor, and locals were getting only 7 percent of that work. That's when we decided that we've got to change the system and get organized on a national level."

In the grand theme of forest restoration, former logging communities have accepted and embraced the idea that they can survive by positioning themselves as long-term stewards of the forests. Clearing underbrush and overgrown fuels from 191 million acres of national forest land is one of the stated goals of the HFRA, and is where local stewardship plays a major role. Although it is easier for a Forest Service contracting officer to hire one big company so that he manages just one fuel-reduction contract, cutting out the local workforce is ignoring the chance for long-term forest restoration from willing stewards. Forest communities are eager to take on the tough, labor-intensive work, and at the same time they want a more integrated approach to restoration that stresses long-term health for forests and communities.

"What are you going to do afterwards?" Enzer wonders. "It's not just removing the fuels. If you build a fuel break and don't maintain it, that's not an efficient use of your money. You can't just do it once. You need people in place to keep it working."

Enzer envisions generational poverty on an Appalachian scale for Western communities if they are ignored by restoration projects that could help to rebuild a rural working class.

"We did industrial forestry, but I don't think industrial restoration is the right scale to get this done," Enzer says. "Everybody loses doing it that way: forests, local communities and the public, because we're not fixing the problem and it's a very shortsighted approach to forest health."

Paychecks are one side of the coin in rural communities, and the threat of wildfires is the other. The Forest Guild's director, Laura McCarthy, told a Senate subcommittee last month that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act was falling short on funding for community wildfire-protection plans. Without the seed money from those grants, prevention efforts don't get started and the fire risk increases.

"It feels like HFRA made a big difference to the agencies to be able to do streamlines -- or maybe not, because we don't know yet about court cases -- but in terms of rural communities, they don't feel safer from wildfires," McCarthy says.

The lack of funding for economic stimulus grants and community wildfire protection at the rural level reflects larger questions about Bush's real motivations.

The Bush administration's rollback of Clinton's "roadless rule" will open up some 60 million acres of forest to road building, tying neatly into not-so-subtle administration suggestions that it would like to use commercial logging to pay for fuel-reduction projects. This shift toward industry over environmental ethics is no surprise from the Bush administration, but it is an especially bitter pill when taken along with broken forest-restoration promises.

Already this year the total amount of wildfire-burned acreage has surpassed the acreage burned in 2003, including the devastation from the Southern California wildfires that prompted the passage of the HFRA. The 2004 acre burn total is double the average of the past decade. Firefighting occupies the public's mind as the best way to control wildfires, but the reality is that fire suppression doesn't work very well at all. Removing the massive amount of kindling that has built up over the past century is the best way to curb fires and maintain healthier forests. Yet fire suppression continues to suck a huge portion out of the budget compared with fuel reduction, despite the promises of HFRA.

"What the administration did was really shortchange HFRA," says Jay Watson, director of the wildland fire program for the Wilderness Society. "And despite all the rhetoric, it would appear that their commitment to act isn't all that significant."

"At the very least it is an opportunity lost to provide communities with real protection." Whether or not it leads to a lot of logs for the timber industry remains to be seen. In some ways the biggest beneficiary is the Forest Service itself."

When John Kerry elevated the discussion about forest restoration to the campaign level with his $100 million Forest Conservation Corps, which proposes to reduce subsidies to the timber industry to create new jobs and promote the long-term health of the forests, Lynn Jungwirth was pleased. She's heartened that both parties are treating the forests as an election-year issue. But she'll hold off passing judgment until rural communities see some of the benefits.

"We've had a lot of talk, but as they say in the woods, 'Talk is cheap. It takes money to buy whiskey.'"

By Jeff Nachtigal

Jeff Nachtigal is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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