Will the Northwest Forest Plan come undone?

The Forest Service and BLM embark on revising the iconic plan and may allow more logging.


President Bill Clinton crafted his visionary Northwest Forest Plan to be a ceasefire to end the timber wars that crippled the region’s economy in the early 1990s. Now, a little more than two decades later, the plan is showing strong signs of unraveling. Designed as a blueprint for restoring the Northwest’s badly overcut forests over the next 100 years, it’s a wonder the icy truce lasted as long as it did. It never truly satisfied the warring factions, the timber industry and the environmentalists, and this spring the two federal agencies in charge of implementing it, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, are embarking on revising the landmark plan.

On a March evening in Portland, Oregon, Forest Service officials met with about 150 members of the public for a “listening session” as the agency begins the process of crafting a replacement for the plan. It expects to finish that work by 2019.

Many of those in attendance at the Portland session were members of the environmental group Bark, which insists that the current plan is allowing too many trees to be cut down, especially near rivers. Conspicuously absent from the meeting were the timber workers. The scene was a major contrast to the 1993 Clinton summit, when workers protested the loss of timber jobs by loudly rolling big log trucks through downtown Portland.

A logger takes limbs off a tree near Apiary, Oregon.

The  industry had asked to have listening sessions in places close to homes of mill workers in Roseburg or Port Townsend, but that fell on deaf ears, said Bill Kluting of the Carpenters union, which represents workers in the industry. The first listening session was held at 5:30 pm on Tues., March 17, in a hotel near the Portland airport, and later sessions were conducted near major airports in Seattle and Redding. “None of our people like to drive into Portland, let alone that time of evening,”  Kluting said. “We have a petition circulating around advising them (the Forest Service) of how this whole program affects rural Oregon.”      

The original Northwest Forest Plan was a product of the long-standing conflict between timber harvesting and environmental concerns, often oversimplified as "jobs vs. owls." The conflict had exploded into a full-blown economic crisis just before President Bill Clinton took office in 1991, when Federal Judge William Dwyer issued an injunction that shut down logging in the Northwest’s old-growth forests, throwing between 60,000 and 100,000 people out of work for the purpose of protecting the northern spotted owl, an endangered old-growth-dwelling bird that had been decimated by aggressive logging practices. Dwyer said the logging was illegally destroying critically important owl habitat and threatening to wipe out the marbled murrelet, several runs of salmon and other forest species.

In 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan, developed by a team of scientists after the 2-day summit involving loggers, environmentalists and other stakeholders, went into effect. Dwyer ruled that logging at a lighter level could resume, and lifted the injunctions. The plan, which guided the management of 24 million acres of land in Washington, Oregon and California, has often been hailed as a global model for protecting large ecosystems and conserving biodiversity, and it's considered one of Clinton's signature environmental achievements during his eight years in office. But under it, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have never been able to sell enough trees to satisfy the demands of the timber industry, or to enforce its rules protecting river corridors and ancient stands of forest strictly enough to appease environmentalists.

In November 2014, the Forest Service briefed representatives of industry, local government and conservation on its intent to revise the Clinton plan, as required by the National Forest Management Act. Jim Peña, the Northwest regional forest supervisor, said the Northwest Forest Plan will no longer exist as an umbrella document that applies to all forests equally. Instead, its principles -- but not necessarily its specific strategies -- will be embedded into the planning documents of each of  the 19 forest units.

The Forest Service says it will retain such principles as protecting old-growth forests, as well as the diverse array of species that live there, but may make specific changes such as decreasing the width of protected corridors along rivers that flow through the forests. Environmentalists worry that if the Forest Service allows more logging within riparian areas, aquatic species will suffer, especially the endangered coho runs in West Coast rivers.

For its part, the BLM says it will release a new forest plan in late April for each of its 9 units, covering 2.5 million acres, all in western Oregon. The agency intends to provide the timber industry with more certainty about how many board-feet it can log, "which has been lacking lo these many years," said BLM spokesman Mike Campbell in Portland. In 2007 the BLM proposed to allow much larger timber harvests while scaling back environmental protections, only to jettison that proposal as an illegal artifact of the Bush administration once Obama took office.

Under the new plans, the timber industry expects to gain access to more timber than it has since the Northwest Forest Plan first took effect, said Ann Forest Burns, a vice-president of the Portland-based industry group, the American Forest Resource Council. She added that the industry's allocation has been half or less of the 1.1 billion annual board feet promised in the original plan. If the new forest plans fails to provide enough timber, she said, "we will ask Congress to change the law." That could include two 1970s-era mandates, the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Andy Stahl, executive director of the environmental group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said that if the Forest Service or BLM fail to provide enough protection for wildlife habitat in the plans, the agencies could face a new round of lawsuits. And it’s not at all certain that either agency will be able to stand up for the Northwest Forest Plan’s suite of controversial environmental regulations, or whether some important regulations will be dropped for expediency’s sake.

“The Forest Service and its political masters want to cut more timber," he said in an interview at the Portland session.  "To do so they need to gut the Northwest Forest Plan. The trick is to make the bad new plan look green, using words like 'sustainable' and 'collaborate.' "

Paul Koberstein writes from Portland, Oregon. He is the editor of Cascadia Times, an environmental journal published in Portland

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