Bill Clinton enacted the Northwest Forest Plan in 1993. This marked the logical ending point for the Northwest Timber Wars between environmentalists and the timber industry that had riven the region for the previous 20 years. This closed most national forest land with old-growth timber to logging in order to save this sensitive species from extinction and to save the last ancient forests. During this whole period, the timber industry claimed protecting the owls would decimate timber employment. Meanwhile, employers themselves were destroying timber employment through a combination of automation, overharvesting and resultant need to find new forests to exploit, and log export policy that created fast profits by selling unprocessed logs to Japan instead of paying American workers to process the wood before exporting it. Long before 1993, timber employment plummeted. In 1978, the timber industry employed 136,000 people in Oregon and Washington. Four years later, that number declined to 95,000. Very little of that was from environmental protection. Weyerhaeuser invested $400 million to modernize its mills in Everett and reduced its work force from 900 to 500. The number of workers needed to produce one million board feet of lumber fell by approximately twenty percent, from 9.1 between 1976 and 1982 to 7.4 between 1982 and 1991. By 1970, over 2.5 billion board feet of timber was exported from west coast ports, a number up 16.6 percent from the previous year. 96.2 percent of that timber went to Japan. Exports exploded during the Reagan years, peaking in 1989 at 1.944 billion board feet of timber, twice their peak during the Carter administration. Between 1979 and 1989, lumber production in the Northwest increased by 11 percent while employment dropped by 24,500 jobs. All of this information comes from my book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, which amazingly is actually on sale for $25 on Amazon right now. Considering it is usually listed at $100, buy it now!
But for loggers facing the end of a work tradition, it became easier to blame greens than their own employers or complex export policy. Companies successfully shifted blame to a minor cause of unemployment. Between 1983 and 1988, average timber employment in Oregon and Washington was 105,000. By 1994, it was still 91,000, even though old-growth logging had fallen to near zero because of the spotted owl lawsuits. Yet these lies about why jobs disappeared remain tremendously powerful in conservative communities, including the logging towns decimated by corporate and political choices about forest policy in the second half of the twentieth century. If you want to read the lies told by conservatives about these issues, you can read this. I won’t embed any of it because it’s garbage, but the only facts provided are the spurious claims of a CEO. But these arguments make me really angry because they are outright lies that cover up corporate malfeasance and greed.