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Group marks 30 years of saving trees
The Oregonian posted to KBC 1/17/04

Calendar photo by Pat Ratliff

The Oregon Natural Resources Council has grown to be a pivotal player in wildlife protection



In its earliest days, the Oregon Natural Resources Council was a local environmental group based in a Eugene bungalow, trying to protect the most beautiful parts of Oregon's national forests from logging through wilderness legislation.

Then it switched gears, becoming a key player in the Northwest timber wars. The group moved into federal courtrooms to stop logging on ecological grounds, arguing that old-growth forests were critical habitat for threatened species such as the northern spotted owl and salmon.

This month, the council celebrates 30 years of saving wild places from chain saws, dams and geothermal plants, pointing to landscapes around Oregon and the nation that have benefited from its lobbying, legislation and litigation.

"The vision of ONRC is to permanently protect our old-growth roadless forests and critical watersheds," said Regna Merritt, executive director of the group, now based in Portland. "If we didn't use the courts, old-growth forests and roadless areas would be cut down, and they would be gone forever. If we can keep them standing, it will buy some time to permanently protect old growth and wilderness."

Formed in 1972 and incorporated in 1974 as the Oregon Wilderness Coalition, the group changed its name in 1982 to reflect broader issues. Its four founders were Joe Walicki, the Northwest representative of The Wilderness Society; Bob Wazeka, a Sierra Club volunteer; Holway Jones, a University of Oregon librarian; and Jim Baker, a telephone line splicer.

"We got a lot of members who never would have joined an organization with Sierra Club on its name," said Baker, who remains active in groups such as Republicans for Environmental Protection. "They were more conservative people. The Sierra Club was called the elitists. We need to bring it back to a bipartisan issue like it was before Ronald Reagan."

After James Monteith became executive director in 1974, he split his salary to hire three staff members, including Andy Kerr. Kerr became the man loggers and millworkers most loved to hate as the council's conservation director and chief sound-bite artist during the 1990s battles over the spotted owl and salmon.

Part of the group's credibility in the early days came from the fact that Monteith, Kerr and Tim Lillebo were native Oregonians and hunters with family ties to timber, the state's leading industry, Monteith said. "So we basically were not carpetbaggers."

For its first 10 years, the council's strategy was to try to get forests included in the wilderness bills that Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., pushed through every time he was up for re-election, Kerr said.

The turning point came in 1984. Kerr was flying to Washington, D.C., and ran into Hatfield in Chicago. Kerr explained that he was lobbying to kill Hatfield's bill to let timber companies out of high-priced timber contracts on national forests after the bottom fell out of the lumber market. Kerr hoped those trees could remain standing and be included in Hatfield's next wilderness bill.

"He said, 'Andy, there are no more roadless areas. I will never, ever do another wilderness bill again,' " Kerr said. "That was our whole strategy. But here was the godfather of Oregon politics saying, 'I'll never ever do another wilderness bill.' We said, 'Hey, let's nationalize this issue.' By nationalizing the issue, it took it out of Hatfield's hands."

Strategy for spotted owl

At the same time, biological research was showing that an obscure bird called the northern spotted owl was in danger of extinction because old growth was being systematically cut down on the Northwest's national forests.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the council became a leader in the spotted owl strategy. A coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, winning court orders stopping logging on vast reaches of federal forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California to protect owl habitat.

President Clinton convened a forest summit in Portland to balance owls against jobs. The council argued that timber jobs were declining anyway because of automation and that standing forests were an economic asset, providing clean water and attracting businesses with employees who enjoyed the outdoors.

The lawsuits were resolved in 1994 by the Northwest Forest Plan, which reduced logging west of the Cascade Range by more than 80 percent, largely through creation of reserves for fish and wildlife habitat.

The council also was involved in legislation creating millions of acres of wilderness and the Hells Canyon Wilderness-National Recreation Area. It worked to stop geothermal development from encroaching on Crater Lake National Park, to halt completion of Elk Creek Dam on a tributary of the Rogue River, to pass a ballot measure protecting 1,500 miles of Oregon rivers and to ban offshore oil and gas drilling.

Many do not see these as victories.

Coos County Commissioner John Griffith, a former logger and newspaper reporter who surfs, fly-fishes and skin-dives in his spare time, sees the council's achievement as "shutting down rural economies" that depend on natural resources.

"They are very successful at influencing the thinking of people who largely have very limited understanding of nature and what's involved in responsibly bringing essential raw materials to society," Griffith said.

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