Historic Northwest Forest Plan needs a careful overhaul

 

It's hard to imagine anything like it happening today: An American president and members of his Cabinet fly into a Western city to broker a deal over the use of public lands. With a small group of stakeholders, they quickly craft a scientifically defensible plan that serves as the regional decision-making framework for another generation.

But 20 years ago, that's exactly what did happen: In the spring of 1993, President Bill Clinton flew to Portland, Ore., to hammer out an agreement between the timber industry and environmentalists over the rapidly dwindling old-growth forests on 24 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington. Three months later, this team produced the Northwest Forest Plan, which protected significant chunks of federally managed forests while allowing moderate logging and providing money for retraining displaced loggers. The plan has since withstood many legal challenges.

"That process was extraordinary," says Steven Yaffee, a policy expert at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. It couldn't be repeated today, he says, due to the extreme polarization of our politics, which began even as the ink dried on the plan, with the Newt Gingrich-led Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. "What president would risk this approach today?"

The Northwest Forest Plan was cut from the cloth of a different political time, but it marked a new era: It legitimized the Forest Service's shift away from a logging-centric mentality; it gave environmentalists confidence that they could win on the merits of science and law; and it signaled that the Northwest's economic future lay in a different direction than timber. Indeed, the high-tech boom followed swiftly on the plan's heels.

But, as Nathan Rice reports, the plan never fully resolved the tension between logging and protection, nor achieved its goals, especially in western Oregon: The endangered species that drove the issue -- the northern spotted owl -- hangs by an ever-thinner thread due to unforeseen threats; the amount of federal timber feeding the remaining local mills is still far less than what the plan projected; and some communities remain mired in a post-logging depression.

These realities have rekindled familiar, fiery debates and raised some difficult questions: Can non-old-growth forests be logged more aggressively while maintaining their ecological health? Should rural logging counties continue to get large federal payments as compensation for logging reductions, or should they tax themselves more and retool for a future based on tourism, recreation and cyber workers?

Finding answers will not be easy, but even the authors of the original plan knew that it would need to be modified as new evidence came to light. What is clear is that the region's leaders have fewer resources to douse this latest flare-up in the timber wars. Society's appetite for large-scale logging on public lands is gone, and government funds are tight in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Oh, and they can't count on President Obama flying in on Air Force One to save the day.