Ancient forest saved strictly for the birds

Old growth forests remind me of an old folks' home, just waiting to die - an official of the Reagan administration, 1984.

WHEN the first English settlers sailed to America in the 17th century they could smell the great pine forests from 100 miles offshore. By the time the Reagan official was speaking, the ancient or old growth forests, including trees more than 2,000 years old and 350ft tall, survived only in the far north-west of the country, along the Pacific coast.

It was these which came under threat in the late Eighties, as timber companies stepped up their logging of redwoods and Douglas Fir to meet the demand of the construction boom. In suburbs across America, timber from old redwood trees, the tallest living things on earth, was shaped into decks, patios and bathtubs.

Loggers and environmentalists had battled since the beginning of the century over the fate of the forests that grow in Washington, Oregon and northern California. But the increased felling of trees during the last Reagan years opened a new round in the fight, culminating in 1991 when the courts, in order to protect the spotted owl, largely banned tree-felling on federal land.

This environmentalist victory, crippling companies that specialised in old growth trees, brought the dispute to boiling point. It forced President Bill Clinton to promise during his election campaign last year that he would convene a forest summit within 100 days of entering the White House to hear both timber industry and environmentalists. He redeemed the promise last Friday by holding a one-day conference in Portland, Oregon.

The environmentalists were suspicious that the purpose of the meeting was to force them to compromise their success under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Magna Carta of the defenders of the North-western forests, which has effectively stopped the logging of the older trees. Andy Kerr, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, said: 'With only 10 per cent of the ancient forests left we cannot afford to compromise.'

In practice the Portland summit marked the moment when the timber companies silently accepted that, if they fight to cut down more of the ancient forests on the Pacific coast, they will lose badly. While blackening the environmentalists for preferring owls to jobs, they will rely more on the quick-growing trees and younger forests of the South and Midwest. The very fact there are so few old trees left also helps to preserve the survivors. 'The truth is the old forests are logged out,' says Richard Harris, a specialist in forestry from the heavily wooded Hoopa Indian Reservation in northern California. 'Nobody is building new lumber mills to cut up the trees. The whole old growth industry is a dinosaur. If it didn't go now, it would go in five or 10 years.'

For the timber worker who believes he has lost his job because of the pernickety feeding and mating habits of 4,000 surviving spotted owls, those few extra years of employment would be valuable. He is unlikely to get them, because the environmentalist pressure will, if anything, increase. Further tracts of forest will almost certainly be set aside to preserve the marbled murrelet, a small bird of the north Pacific coast which likes to nest 100ft up on the moss- or lichen-covered branch of an ancient tree.

Timbermen say the forests and their wildlife are more resilient than they look. But along the Mattole River in heavily timbered Humboldt County on the Pacific coast, it is difficult to find a hillside where earth and trees have not cascaded into the river below. David Simpson, who lives at the mouth of the river, says: 'It is not so much cutting the trees that leads to the slides, but the building of logging roads cut into the sides of the hills.'

Heavy logging of the Douglas firs of the Mattole Valley started at the end of the Second World War, to build houses for returning servicemen. Often the trees were replaced by scrubby tan oak. Thick layers of silt have covered the pebbles where salmon used to breed.

Mr Simpson has organised a group which is trying to buy a 330- acre grove of ancient Douglas firs, but the price has risen from dollars 400,000 in 1988 to dollars 3.5m ( pounds 2.3m).

Here, then, is an ironic consequence of the listing of the spotted owl: a steep rise in timber prices. A single, well-developed, ancient Douglas fir is now worth dollars 3,000 to dollars 5,000. Overall timber prices have doubled.

Timber mills that specialise in ancient trees are running through their final stocks. One company was so eager to cut down a grove of old redwoods it owned that it sent out a team of its workers armed with chainsaws on Thanksgiving Day, when it hoped potential protesters would be celebrating.