Shame and threats impel Eastside plan

  A range of pressures - political scientific, and legal - shifted inland, over the crest of the Cascade Mountains, during the past year and a half, bringing leviathan ecosystem management with them.


The two regions on opposite sides of the crest have also been on opposite ends of a seesaw.


As the timber harvest on the Westside was severely lightened by court injunctions that protected the spotted owl and old-growth forest, there was pressure from the timber industry and the Forest Service to cut Eastside forests more heavily, says Tonia Wolf, a forest activist in Prineville, Ore.


The Clinton administration and Congress have been active on both sides of the seesaw, even as scientists have begun to weigh in with evidence that the Eastside forests are in as much ecological trouble as the Westside's.


The administration always seems a step behind. The Clinton team staged its Forest Conference in Portland in April 1993 with great fanfare, announcing the formation of a scientific team to plan the coastal ecosystem in Washington, Oregon and northern California.


But on the eve of the conference - the debut of large-scale ecosystem planning - conservation groups spoiled the party by calling attention to the Eastside, which they said was being neglected.


The conservationists aired studies by the Forest Service's own biologists, which showed that current forest plans on the Eastside had set aside far too little habitat for a variety of species, from goshawks to pileated woodpeckers to pine martens.


The conservationists threatened to file a lawsuit challenging overall management of Eastside forests. (A similar lawsuit on the Westside had helped bring about the coastal planning effort).


When three months later the administration unveiled its first draft of the coastal ecosystem plan, titled Option 9 for its order in a series of alternatives, President Bill Clinton gave a nod to the forests to the east, directing the Forest Service to develop "a scientifically sound and ecosystem-based strategy for management of Eastside forests."


Pressure increased last September as seven independent scientists - empaneled by Congress to study spruce budworm problems - found that a century of logging had reduced old-growth forests east of the Cascades to fragile islands too small in some cases to support native wildlife.


The independent scientists, selected by a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives, found that three national forests, the Colville, Wallowa-Whitman and Winema, had no old-growth patches larger than 5,000 acres left.


The independent scientists called for a halt: to all Eastside logging and road-building within broad riparian areas and entire watersheds that contained spawning habitat for salmon and resident fish; to livestock grazing near streams; and to roadbuilding within remaining roadless areas greater than 10,000 acres in size.


By last November the Forest Service was looking harder at the east side of the seesaw. Jack Ward Thomas, the agency's new chief, acknowledged to the Washington Post, "If we weren't blathering about old growth and owls, (forest conditions in the inland West) would be the hottest story in forestry."


Moreover, last December, a report from scientists at the University of Idaho concluded, "Idaho forests are in decline, and will continue to decline unless management action is taken . . . The health and sustainability of rural communities in the vicinity of Idaho's national forests are at stake."


The evidence even budged House Speaker Tom Foley, whose territory is the Eastside. Conservationists say he's responsible for heavy cutting on the Colville National Forest. But when the Inland Empire Public Lands Council plastered Spokane with photos of an ugly Colville clearcut, Foley had to respond.


The photos, which appeared on yard signs and billboards, buses and doorknob hangers, reached 70 percent of Spokane County's residents with the message, "It's a clearcut shame."


Prompted by the shame campaign, Foley viewed the Colville clearcuts firsthand on a flyover; afterword he called for a study of forest health and old growth.


The Eastside Ecosystem Management Project, empowered by the administration, began long-term solutions in January. Meanwhile, the administration has staved off an Eastside lawsuit by temporarily adopting "screens' and "Pacfish" standards, which combine to sharply restrict logging of old-growth stands, protect sensitive species, and require wider buffers along streams.


Until the administration comes up with a regionwide forest plan that can hold up in court, logging of old growth in inland Washington and Oregon will remain at a near standstill - except for salvage logging in the wake of summer wildfires.


Jeff Blackwood, who leads the Eastside Project, says the Westside effort was a beginning, and, "We're taking it to the next step of evolution."





* K.D.