Forest protection under the knife

Industry pushed Bush administration to revise Northwest Forest Plan

  • A FOREST FIX: President George Bush working with a handsaw in a dry Western forest

    John Epperson photo, The Denver Post
 

Portland, Ore. - The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, a federally imposed truce between environmentalists and the timber industry, will soon get a facelift. The plan was the Clinton administration's attempt to balance wildlife protection with logging on national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. It protected 7 million acres of old-growth forests and another 2 million acres of watersheds, while calling for the harvest of 1 billion board-feet of lumber each year.

In the plan's final stages, Clinton officials added a provision which requires land-management agencies to check for about 350 little-known organisms - none of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act - and protect them from logging and other ground-disturbing activities. This element of the plan, known as "survey and manage," is costly and can often take years, because it covers species such as fungi that may emerge only under certain climatic conditions at certain times of the year.

It's no surprise, then, that the provision is under fire: Even the researchers who initially developed the Northwest Forest Plan saw it as a huge burden. Jack Ward Thomas, then chief of the U.S. Forest Service, says he told higher-ups at the time that with the survey-and-manage rules in place, the plan would never produce all the timber Clinton administration officials publicly suggested.

So far, history has proven Thomas correct. Last year, logging on federal lands in the Northwest totaled less than a third of the plan's original target. So, in January, Douglas Timber Operators and the American Forest Resource Council sued to boost federal logging and to revise the survey-and-manage provision, which the groups say is illegal.

The Bush administration did not put up much of a fight in defense of the Northwest Forest Plan.

More onerous than the ESA

Though President Bush pledged support for the forest plan during a visit to Oregon this summer, administration officials have stressed that the plan's logging goals have been stymied by its elaborate procedures and requirements (HCN, 4/29/02: Bush will edit Northwest forest plan). David Tenny, deputy undersecretary for Natural Resources in the Department of Agriculture, says the wildlife surveys and protections are "an extraordinary requirement" imposed nowhere else in the nation and can be "more onerous" than the Endangered Species Act.

"There needs to be some kind of reality check on this system," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, one of the timber groups that sued. "All we're trying to do is get the forest plan implemented, nothing more, nothing less."

Worried that weaker wildlife protections could bring down the entire Northwest Forest Plan, eight environmental groups, including the Oregon Natural Resources Council, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance and Gifford Pinchot Task Force, intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the government to help defend the survey-and-manage provisions.

But environmentalists were shut out of the court proceedings and the subsequent out-of-court settlement talks. With both the administration and industry pressing for more logging, the talks were one-sided, says Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "They're in the room together pursuing the same goal without giving the public any say in the matter."

In the Sept. 30 settlement between the Department of Justice and the two timber groups, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management agreed to amend the current survey-and-manage rules.

A wink and a nod

The Northwest Forest Plan isn't the first Clinton-era environmental policy to be revised by the Bush administration in response to industry lawsuits. In the last two years, settlements worked out with the administration have led to the rollbacks of decisions such as a ban on snowmobiles in national parks, extra protection for roadless regions of national forests and critical habitat for West Coast salmon stocks.

"It's definitely a tool in the tool chest," says Doug Honnold of Earthjustice, an environmental legal defense group. "They invite, with a wink and a nod, a lawsuit from industry, so they don't have to take the heat for gutting a popular environmental rule."

But West says environmental groups reached similar settlements with the Clinton administration, canceling timber sales without telling industry groups that had intervened. "It's the pot calling the kettle black," he says. "We're not doing anything other than what judges want done and what the environmental community has done hundreds of times before."

Officials say the revision of the Northwest Forest Plan's wildlife safeguards, which will be released by the end of February, will occur through an open process that will include public comment. The final decision should come in July.

The author is a reporter for The Oregonian.

You can contact ...

  • Doug Heiken, Oregon Natural Resources Council, 541/344-0675;
  • Douglas Timber Operators, 541/672-0757, www.dougtimber.com;
  • Or, view changes to the plan at www.or.blm.gov/surveyandmanage.