SPRINGFIELD, Ore. -- By now, the timber communities of Oregon were supposed to be ghost towns. There was going to be an epidemic of foreclosures, a recession so crippling it would mean "we'll be up to our neck in owls, and every millworker will be out of a job," as President George Bush predicted two years ago while campaigning in the Northwest.
Politicians in both parties agreed. The villain was the northern spotted owl, an endangered bird fond of the same ancient national forests desired by loggers. When major restrictions on logging were ordered in 1991 to protect the bird, Michael Burrill spoke for many of his fellow Oregon timber mill owners when he said, "They just created Appalachia in the Northwest."
But economic calamity has never looked so good. Three years into a drastic curtailment of logging in federal forests, Oregon, the top timber-producing state, has posted some of its lowest unemployment numbers in a generation, just over 5 percent.
What was billed as an agonizing choice of jobs vs. owls has proved to be neither, thus far. Oregon is still the nation's timber basket, producing more than 5 billion board feet a year. (Ten thousand board feet are used to build the average house.)
But instead of using 300-year-old trees from public land to make 2-by-4s, mills are relying on wood from tree farms, most of them belonging to private landowners. And the mills are getting more out of the timber, using parts that used to be discarded.
In the past five years, Oregon lost 15,000 jobs in forest products. But it gained nearly 20,000 jobs in high technology. By early next year, for the first time, high technology will surpass timber as the leading source of jobs in the Beaver State.
Instead of spectral monuments to the spotted owl, many parts of the state have reached what economists call full employment -- a level of about 5 percent that the experts say will not cause inflation and where people are usually unemployed by choice. And there are signs of impending labor shortages, state economists say. In the last year alone, the state's growing economy has added nearly 100,000 jobs -- the exact amount the timber industry said would be lost with the restrictions.
Even the most timber-dependent counties in southern Oregon report rising property values and a net increase in jobs. But some in the timber industry say the crash is yet to come. Many mills are using trees that should not have been cut because they are too small, said Chris West, a spokesman for the Northwest Forestry Association, an industry group based in Portland.
"The small wood lot market blossomed more than anyone expected," Mr. West said. "But it's going to be short-term."
Asked about the job-loss figure of 100,000, Mr. West said, "We don't think the hammer has hit yet."
As for the loggers and millworkers who have already lost their jobs, most of them did not become minimum-wage hamburger flippers, as predicted.
At Lane Community College in Springfield, the nation's largest center for retraining displaced woodworkers, nearly 9 out of every 10 people going through the program have found new jobs, at an average wage of $9.02 an hour, about a $1 an hour less than the average timber industry wage.
They are becoming auto mechanics, accountants, cabinetmakers and health care workers, to name just a few of the many new jobs.
"So many people say this is the best thing to ever happen to them," said Jeff Wilson, a former millworker from the town of Mapleton, who is finishing his retraining program and plans to become a community service worker.
The big question on retraining, one that President Clinton brought half the Cabinet here to discuss at the timber summit last year, was what a timber worker could be retrained to do. It turned out to be a simple answer, said Patti Lake, who runs the retraining program.
"I'm so sick of the Paul Bunyan stereotype about these people," Ms. Lake said. "They come to us because they know there are better jobs than burger-flipping. They're just people who graduated from high school and went to work in the mill or the woods. Now, they're becoming the accountant who does my taxes or the mechanic who fixes my car."
To be sure, there are pockets of poverty in the smaller, more remote timber towns of Oregon. The aid package promised by Mr. Clinton, $1.2 billion over five years, has only begun to trickle in. Under the president's plan, the timber cut in national forests -- will be about one-fourth of what it was in the 1980s.
Places like Sweet Home have lost Main Street businesses as the mills have closed. Auctions of heavy equipment used to haul and mill giant trees are common. But no county in Oregon has an unemployment rate higher than 7.8 percent, and in some rural counties, the rate is about 2 percent, compared with the national rate of 5.9 percent.
And as the number of logging jobs has fallen, the average wage here has risen. In 1988, the peak year for timber cutting, wage levels here were 88 percent of the national average. This year, they are 93 percent.
In 1991, Rep. Bob Smith, a Republican from the eastern part of the state, said the logging restrictions "will take us to the bottom of a black hole." And that year Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat who represents the biggest timber-producing district in the nation, in south and western Oregon, sketched a picture of widespread devastation.
But here in Lane County, in Mr. DeFazio's district, the unemployment rate is 4.8 percent. Mr. DeFazio, who still predicts some economic downturn, said he has been pleasantly surprised by some of the positive developments.
Springfield, the blue-collar neighbor of Eugene, across the Willamette River, has landed a new Sony Corp. factory, where compact discs will be manufactured. It may employ 1,500 people within five years, at salaries that will start at better than $30,000 a year.
Using some money from Mr. Clinton's forest recovery package, the town offered Sony $8 million in tax abatements and incentives. In return, Sony promised to pay people at least 10 percent above the national average. Now the factory is rising on farmland just miles from the woods that have been shut down to logging to protect the spotted owl.
And even though numerous timber mills have closed in Springfield because they could no longer get the big trees, newer, leaner operations like Springfield Forest Products are hiring.
The Springfield mill, which was shut in 1989, was retooled to use small-dimension wood from tree farms. When it was owned by Georgia Pacific, the mill relied on old-growth timber from national forests. The mill now employs 450 people.
Mr. Burrill, who owns a timber mill in Medford, Ore., was asked about his statement that saving the spotted owl would create Appalachia in the Northwest.
"We've had an awful lot of new industry, and that's surprised me," he said.