The group has since held a workshop for local forest contractors, and commissioned a study of the possibility of manufacturing products in local communities using small-diameter trees. It recently won funding to do a "programmatic" environmental assessment that, if all goes as planned, will allow loggers to thin more than 13 million board-feet of lumber from dense, overgrown tree plantations — and at the same time save the Forest Service money on individual environmental studies. The group is hoping to fund much of the work with stewardship contracts.
If the truce holds, Forest Supervisor Claire Lavendel says she ought to be able to meet the Northwest Forest Plan’s timber projections for the Gifford Pinchot: between 53 million and 63 million board-feet each year. "Building that public trust back is the hardest thing," she says.
"We’re not going to go cut a big patch of old growth. To be honest, that isn’t going to happen," says Squires. "For the moment, it makes sense to focus our energy on thick stands. In five or 10 years, we can revisit big trees — or maybe that’s something my daughters will do in 30 or 40 years. What we can do now is set the table. We can give my community a chance to survive.
"In 10 years, you all may be warring over timber in the rest of the West," he adds, "but we think we’re going to solve it here."
Clearly, real progress is possible on the national forests. But the course of true love never did run smooth — and neither has the continued old-growth drama.
Much of the current controversy can be traced back to President Clinton. The Northwest Forest Plan put about 7 million acres into old-growth reserves, but almost half of those reserves had already been cut over. Some thinning would be allowed in these forests, with the goal of speeding them toward old growth, but it would be a century or three before they were any good for owls and murrelets. And in a concession to the timber industry, the plan left roughly 1 million acres of old-growth forests in the "matrix" and open to logging. The authors of the plan believed the owls and other species would still have a decent chance of survival while younger forests grew back. In the meantime, the million acres would keep the mills running.
This proved incredibly contentious, however. Environmentalists argued that the existing old-growth habitat was being sacrificed for habitat that didn’t yet exist — that might not exist for hundreds of years. They took the issue to court, arguing that land managers had failed to follow the plan’s "aquatic conservation strategy," which protected salmon streams and watersheds, as well as the "survey and manage" rules, which required agencies to look for a host of rare species — from voles to salamanders — that are associated with old-growth forests, but not protected by the Endangered Species Act. Judges agreed. One 1999 ruling by Washington district court Judge William Dwyer had the jaw-dropping effect of overturning 800 million board-feet worth of timber sales.
After four years of approaching — and in some case exceeding — timber projections, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management watched the cut drop nearly to nothing. The timber industry was enraged. Its mantra, despite the fact that the agencies had reduced their timber projections to about 800 million board-feet annually, was, "Where’s our billion board-feet?"
Enter George W. Bush, who put timber industry higher-ups in the government offices responsible for regulating the national forests. Mark Rey, the Agriculture under secretary in charge of the Forest Service, spent his career working for the timber industry, and has tackled his new job with a single-minded determination to remove barriers to logging. Mark Rutzick, one of the chief attorneys directing the administration’s salmon policies, was the longtime industry lawyer who drafted the settlement between the industry and the administration that led to the weakening of the Northwest Forest Plan’s old-growth protections.
In fact, just as Vice President Dick Cheney met secretly with oil and gas execs to draft his national energy policy, the administration also worked behind the scenes with timber representatives to rewrite rules on the public forests. In a letter sent to the administration in late 2001, and later released to environmentalists through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, industry higher-ups laid out their wish list. Among other things, they asked the administration to remove the single greatest barriers to logging the 1 million acres of unprotected old-growth: the aquatic conservation strategy and the survey and manage rules.
The Bush administration gave the timber industry everything it asked for. "They’re determined to get the last of the old growth out of the matrix," says Francis Eatherington, a forest monitor with the environmental group Umpqua Watersheds. "They want to turn these forests into plantations before we stop them, because once they have a tree farm, it’s there for the industry in perpetuity."
Environmentalists aren’t the only ones complaining. "I don’t understand what (Bush administration officials) are doing. It doesn’t seem to me that they’re trying to move forward with the creation of some consensus," says Jerry Franklin, a forest ecologist at the University of Washington, and one of the authors of the Northwest Forest Plan.
In the past year, Franklin, along with the other three main authors of the plan, as well as former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, have proposed banning old-growth logging altogether. "We, as a society, agree that we don’t want to cut big trees any more. That wasn’t clear in 1993," says Franklin.
The million acres of old-growth left unprotected by the Northwest Forest Plan were meant to keep the mills running, but in fact, most of the old-growth sales have never made it out of the courts. The industry has turned instead to private timberlands — or shipped out to Asia and South America, where the legal hurdles don’t exist. According to the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group, 80 percent of the remaining mills have retooled to work with small-diameter logs. "On one hand, you can count the number of mills in Oregon that mill a big log," says Todd Merritt with Georgia Pacific. Still, with the current political climate, industry is wary of bidding on federal timber, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
"We’re going to need to do a whole lot of active management over the next century," says Franklin. "The key to that is to have public trust. The biggest contribution (the administration) could make is to say, ‘As a matter of policy, we’re not going to cut old-growth forests and big trees,’ and take roadless areas off the table. That would take care of a lot of conflict right there."
"I don’t think you build trust by failing to uphold your word," responds Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey. "President Bush has concluded that we will redeem the commitment of the Clinton administration to provide a billion board-feet a year. That’s pretty much what we’ve been about."