COOS BAY, ORE. -- "Lord help me," Barbara Roberts implored with a good-natured roll of her eyes. Out the window of her small campaign plane, she'd just caught an overhead glimpse of a convoy of logging trucks rumbling toward a timber rally where she was about to speak.
Roberts, the Democratic nominee for governor of the nation's most timber-dependent state, had cause for trepidation: she was flying into a community where economic and environmental interests have collided in a most poignant way, and the natives didn't figure to be friendly.
For decades, the ruggedly independent third- and fourth-generation lumberjacks and millworkers who live in mill towns like this one on Oregon's coast have been losing jobs to global competition and depleting resources. Now they see their way of life threatened by a different and baffling enemy -- a one-pound, two-foot, brown and white bird, the northern spotted owl, that two weeks ago was listed as a threatened species because its natural habitat, the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, is being destroyed by logging.
If provisions of the Endangered Species Act are aggressively implemented, up to 28,000 timber industry jobs in the Northwest -- most of them in Oregon -- could be lost over the next decade. If they aren't, the fate of more than a million acres of ancient forest and the 2,000 remaining pairs of spotted owls will be sealed. The Bush administration, Congress and the courts all will have a hand in deciding whether logging can continue on the federal land where most of the old growth forests are found.
T-shirts inscriptions at the rally at the Coos County fairgrounds made local sentiments clear: "Save a Logger -- Eat an Owl"; "I Love Spotted Owls . . . Fried," and "This Family Supported by Timber $." So did the young children carrying placards that asked: "Who's more important, the owl or me?"
In Oregon, there's really only one way a politician can answer such a question. But there can be subtle variations, and they have led to a not-so-subtle outbreak of attack politics in the race for the office being vacated by Gov. Neil Goldschmidt (D), who is retiring after one term.
The Republican nominee, Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, has gone on the offensive. As soon as the long-anticipated listing was announced, he began airing a radio ad that said: "Months before the spotted owl decision was even final, Barbara Roberts had already given up. She thinks Oregon should just play the hand its dealt, no matter how bad it is." In contrast, the ad continued, Frohnmayer "has challenged the feds to face up to the human and economic impact of their decisions."
At the rally here last weekend, Roberts, Oregon's secretary of state since 1984, struck back. She accused Frohnmayer of being in the "hip pocket" of the timber barons, from whom he has raised $225,000, and said his dire estimates of the job loss amounted to fear-mongering.
She proposed a package of tax and economic incentives to help Oregon speed its long-term transition from a timber economy centered around old-growth, or virgin, forests to one that relies on replanted forests and to revive closed mills so Oregon can capture more dollars from its logs by turning them into secondary wood products.
One out of every four raw Oregon logs is exported, mostly to Japan, where they are stockpiled at the bottom of the sea. "We have to stop behaving like a colony," Roberts said.
She received a polite but muted hearing from the 1,500 loggers and their families. "People around here feel punched on and punched on and punched on, and our attitude is you're either for us or against us," said Darrell Smith, assistant manager of a wood preserving company. "When she made that comment about playing the hand you're dealt, a lot of people figured she was against us."
Frohnmayer has come out in support of a bill introduced last week by Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) and Rep. Les AuCoin (D) that would set minimum limits for timber production and require the U.S. Forest Service to open up areas off-limits to logging to offset any production curtailed by the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists have called the proposal a "timber baron's dream."
"I think these kind of rear-guard actions will have a very short-term appeal," said Larry Tuttle, regional director of the Wilderness Society. "All they represent is politicians trying to hide from the issue, and I think a lot of Oregonians know that."
Even if, as expected, the Hatfield-AuCoin bill goes nowhere, Frohnmayer (whose brother, John, is head of the embattled National Endowment for the Arts) is counting on his connections to the Bush administration. He met with President Bush last week to make the case that his state "needs time to make the transition from old growth to a second growth" industry.
"The federal government owns 52 percent of Oregon's land, and you had better be on good terms with your landlord," he said in an interview.
Some Roberts supporters believe Frohnmayer is making a tactical mistake by tethering himself to the administration -- which must be more sensitive than any Oregon politician to the gathering force of the environmental movement.
"George Bush isn't going to be able to wave a magic wand for him." said Kevin Smith, co-manager of Roberts' campaign. "Plus, with the S&Ls and taxes, I'm not sure Bush is the best person to be allied with right now."
Though most Oregonians appear to care passionately about their environment, Roberts, who grew up in a timber community, is reluctant to make a straight-out environmental pitch. "This issue would be a lot easier if we were talking about preserving water, not an owl," she said. "That's what's really at stake -- a whole ecosystem. If we don't protect it, Oregonians won't be able to hunt and fish and do other things they love." She made the comments in an interview -- not in her timber rally speech.
The owl is not the only issue that separates the candidates. Roberts is pushing an aggressive social spending agenda, topped by her proposal that state's share of local education funds rise to 35 percent from just under 30 percent now. She wants to remove a lid on state spending, enacted after the recession of the early 1980s, to cover the estimated $250 million cost.
Frohnmayer wants to keep the spending limits in place and has emphasized his tough record against crime, drugs and youth gangs, all of which are on the rise in the Portland metropolitan area, which is undergoing a population boom because of immigrants from California.
The two nominees also have different styles and pedigrees. The bookish Frohnmayer received degrees from Harvard, Oxford (where he was a Rhodes scholar) and Berkeley, and taught law before he entered politics as a state legislator in 1975. The energetic Roberts got involved in public life as the mother of an autistic child for whom she lobbied for better educational programs. After serving for a decade on her local school board, she became a state legislator and eventually majority leader of the state House. Her husband, Frank, is the longest-serving Democrat in the state Senate, and has one of the most liberal voting records.
Frohnmayer has raised roughly $2 million (including $800,000 at a recent Bush breakfast in Portland) to Roberts's $650,000, and he led in a poll taken last month by 50 percent to 38 percent.
Oregon was one of 10 states that voted for Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, but it's always been kind to moderate Republicans of Frohnmayer's stripe -- witness the long careers of the state's two senators -- Hatfield and Sen. Bob Packwood (R).
Of all the issues on Oregon's plate this year, the owl has by far the most emotional punch. Fewer than one in six Oregonians are employed in the timber industry, but its well-being remains crucial to the state.
Nowhere does that future seem more in peril than here in Coos Bay. Until a decade ago, this coastal community was home to two dozen lumber mills and one proud sign along its main drag that proclaimed, "World's largest lumber shipping port." Today the sign is gone and so are all but one of the mills -- victims of global competition and short-sighted industry management.
"It's too bad the reforestation program didn't start about twenty years before it did," said Orville Gulseth, a logger for the last 35 years, who attended the rally.
Gulseth said he has no time for the spotted owl -- "we done a lot worse to a lot better animals" -- but added that he doubts the way the owl issue is resolved, one way or the other, will have much effect on the long-term decline of logging.
"My four boys are all loggers," he said. "But my eight grandchildren -- I doubt any of 'em will be."