OLYMPIA, WASH. -- It's been said in this part of the country that if the spotted owl didn't exist, the timber industry would have had to invent it.

The solution to the Northwest forest crisis proposed by the timber industry and some elected officials -- relaxing environmental laws to permit increased logging of national forest timber -- can never work because it ignores the real causes of change in Northwest timber communities.

In spite of the hollow rhetoric of "owls vs. jobs," serious observers realize that our timber industry is undergoing very fundamental changes. And almost every change means fewer jobs and lower wages. Log exports, modern technology, overcutting for short-term profit, the disappearance of abundant old growth, the shift of industry investment to the Southeast and overseas, and yes, increased environmental protection, spell big changes for families and communities in the Northwest.

At a Weyerhaeuser timber company presentation in Longview, Wash., in 1986, company president George Weyerhaeuser put it this way:

"We are weathering a revolutionary restructuring that is shaking the forest products industry in the Pacific Northwest. ... Production per man/hour has increased significantly. ... Forest products companies both big and small must learn to play by a new set of rules if they are to survive. ... Excess capacity has continued to depress prices. ... Markets of the Pacific Rim hold great promise. ... More than 100 mills have closed since 1980. ... We have closed 10 unprofitable enterprises. ... Depressed prices and stiff competition leave the company with no alternative but to seek a substantial reduction in labor costs. ... So, we will be seeking wage and benefit reductions."

In discussing these changes and noting the mill closures between 1980 and 1986, Mr. Weyerhaeuser did not once mention the spotted owl.

Between 1979 and 1988, the timber industry in Washington and Oregon eliminated more than 25,000 jobs. As George Weyerhaeuser observed, 195 sawmills and plywood mills shut down during roughly that same period. While these jobs were being eliminated, lumber and plywood production actually increased by 12 percent, and the timber cut was increased by nearly 7 percent. All this, of course, before any significant logging prohibition on behalf of the spotted owl.

On a recent company-sponsored tour of their new Green Mountain sawmill, I asked the Weyerhaeuser foreman how many workers this mill employed compared with the generation of mills it replaced. He looked around at the computer monitors, laser-guided saws and the handful of workers and replied, "About half." This is exactly what George Weyerhaeuser meant when he said, "production per man/hour has increased significantly."

In 1979 Douglas fir standard and better 2x4 lumber sold for $260 per 1,000 board feet at the mill. In 1988 those same 2x4s sold for just $232. Excess capacity dropped Northwest lumber prices. In response, many timber giants are abandoning the Northwest for the South. Between 1978 and 1989, seven major timber producers reduced their Northwest production capacity by half and increased their capacity in the South by 155 percent.

Nor is this movement limited to the southern United States. Weyerhaeuser now owns as much mill capacity in Canada as it does in Washington state. In March 1992 the company closed its pulp mill in Everett, Wash., laying off 285 workers. But six months later it announced plans to spend $600 million to acquire additional sawmills, pulp mills and timberland in Alberta, Canada, and Georgia.

Between 1981 and 1988, West Coast log exports doubled. In 1989 Washington alone exported 2.73 billion board feet of unmilled logs. (For comparison, the highest annual Forest Service cut for Washington and Oregon combined was just over 5 billion board feet in 1988.) And we exported 15,000 jobs along with them.

This is the fulfilled "promise" from Mr. Weyerhaeuser's Pacific Rim markets. The ugliest aspect of this crisis is the parade of fully loaded log trucks past rusted and shut-down mills toward bustling export docks.

The spotted owl is not to blame. The timber industry is declining in Washington's economy. But it is still the lifeblood of many rural towns, and timber will be an important part of their economic future. In a hemispheric timber economy dominated by pulp and chips and scrawny, twisted trees, we could specialize here in straight-grain, knot-free, towering timbers. We could squeeze every job out of every log we grow and export value-added wood products, not raw materials. And we could teach the world responsible forestry -- protecting our soils, salmon, wetlands and forest wildlife.

We could promote diverse economies, with good salaries, to build a sustainable future for our children's families. We could invest in our rural communities and ensure that the benefits of their resources and labor flow to them first. The writer is director of the National Audubon Society's Washington State Office.