In an attempt to turn the tables on environmentalists, a group of logging companies today asked the federal government to declare Olympic Peninsula loggers a threatened species.
Sponsors say their petition is the first to seek protection for humans under the 17-year-old Endangered Species Act. It is also the latest twist in a mostly humorless battle over the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Borrowing language from environmentalists and biologists concerned about the northern spotted owl, the petition argues that ``fragmentation'' of the Olympic logger's forest ``habitat'' threatens the logger with extinction.
``It may look like a publicity stunt but it's serious,'' said Bill Pickell, manager of 600-member Washington Contract Loggers Association.
The threatened-logger petition is directed to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan.
The point of the petition is that the economic and social well-being of the Olympic Peninsula's timber-dependent communities is endangered by plummeting timber sales.
Because the Endangered Species Act doesn't preclude listing humans as threatened, Pickell said, ``we see no reason why the concerns of men, women and children are relegated to secondary status when compared to the needs of the northern spotted owl . . .
``We're not a planet of the apes or the spotted owls or the pileated woodpeckers. We're a planet of the human beings.'' The spotted owl, found most frequently in old-growth forests, was declared a threatened species in June. Environmentalists also have asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the marbled murrelet, the fisher and the Pacific yew tree - all found in Northwest old-growth forests - to its list of threatened or endangered species.
``This is the first time that I know of that the loggers have gone on the offensive using the same tool that the environmentalists have used against us consistently,'' Pickell said.
Bill Arthur, Northwest representative of the Sierra Club, said it was ``perfectly fine that Bill (Pickell) wants to take steps to highlight the plight of the millworker and the logger.
``We are dealing with a situation where some people's current employment may be gone. That's a very different situation from saying if you continue to liquidate habitat you're going to liquidate a species.''
Instead of continuing to log old-growth forests, Arthur suggested that loggers be assisted by hiring more workers to replant forests and improve existing stands, by redirecting logs from export docks to local mills and by retraining some workers for other kinds of work.
``Declaring a particular occupation of people in one place a species is a mockery of the scientific world,'' said Jean Durning, Washington state director of The Wilderness Society.
``This kind of ridiculous action, this kind of irresponsible statement, detracts from serious attention to economic solutions. It turns it into a circus.''
Pickell and other timber-industry representatives said they hoped the threatened-logger petition would be seriously considered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But Interior Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said the government can consider only the likelihood of a species' physical extinction - not economic hardship.
Goldstein called the petition ``a terrific public relations idea,'' but said supporters of the timber industry should be pressuring Congress to convene the Endangered Species Committee. That panel has the power under the Endangered Species Act to allow logging of spotted-owl habitat.
``I think if we make (Rep.) Jolene Unsoeld an endangered species after November 6, everyone will get the message,'' said Goldstein.
The Olympic Peninsula, focus of the threatened-logger petition, is among the areas hardest hit by plummeting federal timber sales. According to the petition, 40 percent of the peninsula's 175,000 residents depend directly or indirectly on the timber industry.
A University of Washington study predicted that 27 to 60 percent of timber-industry jobs on the Peninsula could be lost, depending on the extent of spotted-owl protection.