Rethinking the Northwest Forest Plan

Originally published in the Portland Tribune Feb. 19, 2015


Bill Clinton’s visionary Northwest Forest Plan is on the chopping block.

Twenty years ago, the federal government adopted the Northwest Forest Plan to safeguard remnants of the region’s heavily logged ancient forests, and save imperiled wildlife that live there, by limiting the timber industry’s access to federal timber in Oregon, Washington and Northern California. This year, the government intends to try a new approach as the industry and Oregon’s congressional delegation clamor for a timber supply they say was promised but never delivered.

At separate private briefings in Portland last November, the U.S. Forest Service revealed to environmental groups and a timber trade group that it intends to revise the forest plan, created a generation ago to lift a court injunction and end the Northwest timber wars.

“In rapid order, speaker after speaker from the conservation community urged the agency to ‘Keep the Northwest Forest Plan intact,’ ” says Chuck Willer of the Corvallis-based Coast Range Association.

Environmentalists contend the Northwest’s forests need protection now more than ever. Since the plan went into effect in April 1994, the number of endangered species has increased and climate change has quickened, bringing new threats.

Timber industry leaders delivered a different message. “We want a plan that will work. It hasn’t worked for a variety of reasons,” says Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resources Council, an industry group based in Portland.

The Northwest Forest Plan was designed to deliver 1.2 billion board feet of timber to the industry each year, but has produced only about half that amount, Partin says. He expects the federal government will find it can do both jobs of protecting all wildlife and delivering the timber.

The industry also is looking to Congress to help clear the path for more logging, and favors a House bill sponsored by Oregon Democrats Kurt Schrader of Canby and Peter DeFazio of Springfield and Republican Greg Walden of Hood River. A Senate bill, reintroduced in January by Ron Wyden, a Portland Democrat, would provide much less additional timber.

The Forest Service will hold public “listening sessions” starting in late March to hear what people think should replace the Clinton plan, says Jim Peña, the agency’s regional forester for the Northwest.

The Clinton plan was developed by scientists tasked with creating a science-based plan that was sound enough to hold up in court, not focus groups in search of a politically palatable compromise.

But there may be no way to escape political considerations this time around. The courts have tended to get more conservative in their rulings, and a few days after the briefings, Republicans claimed control of both chambers of Congress.

New approach

Peña and his California counterpart, Randy Moore, led the discussions. They announced the ecosystem-wide Northwest Forest Plan will be folded into planning documents for each of the 17 national forests across the three states, and another nine areas in western Oregon managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. That is likely to open up the Clinton plan to pleas from groups that want increased logging.

The Clinton plan went into effect after a series of court rulings halted timber sales throughout the region because they violated environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, throwing a large number of timber workers off the job. The plan banned the clear-cutting that had liquidated vast swaths of ancient forest across Oregon and Washington after World War II, and prescribed the minimum actions needed over the next 100 years to restore forest ecosystems and recover wildlife populations damaged by the logging.

Willer says he’s “stunned” the Forest Service is ready to abandon the plan so early.

President Clinton’s plan emphasized the preservation of mature and old growth trees in large reserves, and to focus timber-cutting outside the reserves. It also added an Aquatic Conservation Strategy that further limited timber-cutting along streams. The Clinton plan rejected the forest-by-forest approach to forest management that had been in place many decades, meshing nicely with a ruling by federal Judge William Dwyer, who said the government couldn’t comply with the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws “without planning on an ecosystem basis.”

The plan emerged after the 1993 “timber summit” at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, where Clinton directed his agencies to satisfy the minimum requirements needed to lift the federal court injunction. Clinton left it to the scientists to develop the plan, which has been hailed as a global model for protecting large-scale ecosystems and conserving biodiversity.

Dwyer found the plan was sufficient and lifted his injunction.

Covering 24.5 million acres across the region, the plan made sweeping changes in the way forests were managed. It helped stem the further loss of old-growth forests and endangered species, including the northern spotted owl and numerous runs of salmon. The Clinton forest plan is thought to be the crowning environmental achievement of his eight years in office.

Lesser protections proposed

Peña says the Forest Service is looking to return to some version of the forest-by-forest approach. He says he can’t guarantee each watershed in each forest will give wildlife the exact same level of protection they have now, and that local input will be sought.

The last time the region’s national forests were governed solely by local plans, local forest managers and the Forest Service brass frequently were found by courts to be violating environmental laws. But Forest Service managers weren’t entirely to blame. The foresters were acting under the direction of politicians like Sen. Mark Hatfield, the Oregon Republican who sponsored legislation requiring agencies to offer large amounts of timber for sale, regardless of their environmental consequences, as The Oregonian documented in a series of articles.

The Clinton plan emphasized forest and stream protections ahead of logging. In the new plan, it remains to be seen how much emphasis on environmental protection will remain, or whether logging will be given an equal footing, or better, as some politicians and timber executives seek.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: OREGON WILD – A stump is all thats left from a former old growth tree cut down in Western Oregon.

Chipping away

The Forest Service and BLM were chipping away at some of the wildlife protections in the plan even before Clinton left office in 2001. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations targeted a rule requiring that populations of wildlife remain “viable” throughout their range. That rule was finally weakened in 2012.

“The old viability rule was a major underpinning of the Northwest Forest Plan,” says Doug Heiken of the environmental group Oregon Wild. “The weakened viability rule is a potential threat to the Northwest Forest Plan. We won’t really know the extent of this threat until it is applied and tested in court.”

Federal agencies are now under heavy pressure to allow harvesting in the old growth reserves created by the plan.

Another set of rules designed to protect streamside buffers known as “riparian zones” may also be weakened. Declines in once-abundant salmon, amphibians, and invertebrates like salamanders gave rise to the riparian protections. The riparian rules are largely responsible for

the higher-quality aquatic habitats found now in many places, says Chris Frissell, an independent scientist who helped develop some of the concepts first incorporated into the plan’s aquatic and watershed protections. He says any shrinking of riparian zones will cause wildlife populations to also shrink — if not go extinct — especially given the rapid onset of climate change, which is expected to trigger increased wildfires and drought.

In the two decades since the Clinton plan was adopted, a number of species have continued to decline. The federal government listed all Oregon and California stocks of forest-dependent coho salmon as threatened or endangered in 2005, and now is proposing to list the Pacific fisher, a plush-furred member of the weasel family that inhabits closed-canopy forests.

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