BLM moves away from landmark Northwest Forest Plan

Court showdown may force the agency to reconsider its Pacific Northwest logging goals.

 

Crunching across a brushy, logged-over slope near Corvallis, Oregon, Reed Wilson points his trekking pole at an ancient Douglas fir in a neighboring patch of forest. The tree is more than an armspan in diameter, its toes decorated with saprophytic orchids and millipedes.

One of 117 behemoths among these otherwise young stands, this tree and 38 others also wear necklaces of pink tape. Tree-climbing citizen surveyors left them to mark the presence of red tree vole nests, explains Wilson, a gray-haired local jeweler and activist. The tiny rodents devour conifer needles and use the hair-like resin ducts to build pillowy abodes in the trees’ branches. Most vole business takes place high in the canopy — interlaced limbs offering access to other trees, food, mates and new homes. The vole is also favored prey for the threatened northern spotted owl, and its population here in the low-slung northern Coast Range is a candidate for endangered species protection.

The federal government set aside this area as part of a 10-million-acre network of reserves in western Oregon, Washington and Northern California, largely to protect species like spotted owls and voles whose old-growth habitat was being destroyed by logging. In 2009, though, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a commercial project to thin younger trees here, ostensibly to restore more diverse forest structure. And though the Benton Forest Coalition, to which Wilson belongs, and two other environmental groups forced the agency to leave intact forest around most of the vole trees, several stand alone amid logging slash, their tiny tenants marooned and more vulnerable to predation. “This was native forest,” regenerating from a 1931 wildfire, Wilson says. “It hadn’t been logged before.”

Now, the BLM is proposing a pair of new management plans for its 2.5 million acres in western Oregon. Several environmental groups fear the plans could make it even easier to allow destructive logging inside old-growth reserves.

They also signal the agency’s departure from the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which created the reserves in the first place to help end a bitter struggle over Northwestern forests. The landmark agreement allowed some logging while emphasizing ecosystem preservation on 24.5 million acres of federal land, 80 percent of it overseen by the Forest Service and most of the rest divided between the BLM and National Park Service. Part of the agreement’s strength was that it unified forest management across an entire landscape, regardless of agency boundaries, says David Moryc, senior director of river protection at American Rivers. “If we’re calving off a big section and looking at it differently, that will by its nature have major ramifications for the health of the ecosystem.” Worse, says veteran Oregon forest advocate Andy Kerr, it seems like a bad omen for the Forest Service’s approaching updates to its own portion of the Northwest Forest Plan.

 

A male red tree vole in a Douglas fir. The species is one of many that received special protection under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, due to its reliance on the Pacific Northwest’s dwindling old-growth forests.
Michael Durham

The BLM’s revisions have roots in the 1937 federal Oregon and California Lands Act, which covers most of the agency’s heavily checkerboarded western Oregon lands. The “O&C Act” aimed to halt the turn-of-the century timber industry’s cut-and-run approach, denuding lands and then abandoning communities. It mandates that the BLM manage forests to provide a “sustained yield” of timber — never cutting more than can grow back annually, but also ensuring a steady supply in perpetuity. The federal government was also supposed to pass 50 percent of net logging revenues to 18 western Oregon counties to help make up for the lack of tax revenue from those O&C lands, though this function has since been covered and augmented by a safety net law called the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

The Northwest Forest Plan was expected to supply 1.1 billion board-feet from national forest and BLM land annually, including through clear-cutting old growth outside reserves. But logging fluctuated with congressional appropriations, economic factors and environmental lawsuits, and the cut was lower than anticipated.

Amid the scuffling, both the BLM and Forest Service shifted to timber programs that emphasized thinning younger forests, including those recovering from clear-cuts. This approach is less controversial than clear-cutting, but the BLM supply will run out in less than 10 years, says Mark Brown, project manager on the agency’s plans. The BLM also faces new federal spotted owl protections, including critical habitat designated in 2012. “The balance we’re trying to strike is fulfilling our responsibilities under the O&C Act, while also meeting our responsibilities under laws like the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act,” Brown says. “When we fulfill all of those, we don’t have a lot of decision space.”

The proposed plans would increase the timber harvest more than a third over present levels, to 278 million board-feet, by returning to more aggressive logging on a smaller portion of forest. Simultaneously, they boost the amount of land protected in reserves from 66 percent to 75 percent, pulling in most (though not all) of the remaining mature and old-growth forests technically left unprotected by the Northwest Forest Plan. The plans would also end salvage logging of burned trees inside reserves — a provision environmentalists have long fought for.

Logging truck driver James Griffin tightens the chains securing a full load of logs he’s taking to a mill from a burned area in Washington. Environmentalists oppose salvage logging of burned forests because it can damage habitat, slow natural recovery and increase erosion.
Alan Berner/ The Seattle Times

Still, a coalition of 22 environmental groups has filed a formal protest, arguing that the plans would eliminate key protections. For one, they shrink stream buffers that have significantly improved watersheds by, among other things, limiting logging that contributes to sediment runoff. The buffers also gave streams room to shift course, and maintained connections between habitat patches for species like spotted owls. Inside old-growth reserves, the new plans would drop prohibitions against cutting trees over 80 years old, and allow logged openings up to four acres — eight times the size currently allowed. And though managers are expressly directed to maintain habitat for threatened spotted owls and murrelets, another imperiled bird, they’re permitted to remove or downgrade it, through fuel reduction or other treatments, for “the overall health of the stand or adjacent stands.” Such vague language invites abuse, says Chandra LeGue, western Oregon field coordinator for Oregon Wild. “It’s more discretionary. And if the policy says they can do it, we’re afraid they will do it.”

In sum, though, the plans are an incremental but “clear improvement” over the Northwest Forest Plan, says Paul Henson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon state supervisor. The agency favors active restoration if it ultimately improves habitat, Henson says, and the BLM explicitly adopted concepts from Fish and Wildlife’s spotted owl recovery plan, which makes it easier to hold managers accountable for protecting the species. Plus, the BLM must consult with Fish and Wildlife on projects that could harm owls or murrelets — an additional safeguard.

But environmentalists’ strong objections raise doubts about whether the BLM can achieve its new timber targets. The Pacific Northwest may be at a point where logging is socially unacceptable unless it has clear ecological purposes that outweigh economic ones, observes Norm Johnson, a forestry professor at Oregon State University and a Northwest Forest Plan author. In the BLM’s “moderate intensity” logging areas, companies could cut 85 to 95 percent of trees, which seems likely to incite controversy even in cases where it’s ecologically defensible. “If your harvest can be identified with clear-cutting, you’re sunk. The public hates clear-cutting on federal land,” Johnson says. The BLM is “really testing the ground for changes to the Northwest Forest Plan. And if the BLM can’t do it, it says a lot about the future of federal forestry.”

Local counties worry about harvests for different reasons. “It’s not an attainable goal,” says Tony Hyde, a Columbia County commissioner and chairman of the Association of O&C Counties, which has also protested the new plans. Chris Cadwell, a retired BLM forest analyst consulting for the counties, says a fair amount of spotted owl and murrelet critical habitat still falls outside reserves, in harvest lands. That may mean further restrictions from Fish and Wildlife or environmental lawsuits. The plan also forbids projects that would harm spotted owls, for up to eight years or until Fish and Wildlife begins management of barred owls, an invasive species that threatens spotted owls. That, Cadwell warns, could cause further logging reductions.

The timing is terrible for the counties. Last year, Congress failed to renew Secure Rural School payments, and direct O&C payments will be much lower, given timber revenues’ slump. Four O&C counties are on a state watch list for financial distress. They have some of the state’s lowest property taxes, but have been unable to raise rates to make up for shortfalls. Already, 17 O&C counties plan to sue. The O&C Act, they argue, requires the BLM to offer at least 500 million board-feet annually, with all O&C timberlands available for “permanent forest production.”

The lawsuit and others to come may force a court reckoning over just how much timber harvest the 1937 law requires. “I think the counties want to know and the forest products industry wants to know and the environmental community wants to know: What does the O&C Act really mean?” says Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a Northwest timber trade association. “Does it mean what it says? Or has it been circumvented by other acts of Congress?”

Environmentalists feel confident in their legal interpretation: After all, the O&C Act mandates protecting watersheds and recreation alongside timber production. “We read the O&C Act as Congress’s first attempt to do a multiple-use statute,” says Kerr. The BLM, he and others believe, has discretion to prioritize more conservation. And if the plans stand, Kerr says, “I’m looking forward to them trying to cut old growth and having people sit in trees again.”

Reed Wilson might be up for that. Originally from Texas, he got involved in public-lands activism through a famous tree-sit to save 94 acres of old growth at central Oregon’s Fall Creek. “It lasted five years, through the winter and everything,” he says. “It was wonderful.” Up on the platforms, flying squirrels would sometimes land on protesters. “They’d try to take the food out of your hand,” Wilson says. “We’d see them launch. They’d go to the edge of the platform and just, choooooo.”

Contributing editor Sarah Gilman writes from Portland, Oregon.