Back at the Table, Again


The creation of Washington State’s current logging regulations may have been less spectacular that the infamous spotted owl timber wars of the early 90s (the President didn’t have to intervene, for instance), but they were still righteously complicated. Ten years ago, when salmon hit the endangered species list, stakeholders sat down to create a multi-trick pony: a plan to protect salmon, fulfill tribal treaty rights to harvest salmon, satisfy the federal Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts, and preserve the timber economy. They called it “Forests and Fish.”

The Forests and Fish negotiations lasted three years, and consensus was only reached after many environmental groups left the table over complaints that the timber lobby held too much sway. Key to the eventual compromise was something called ‘adaptive management,’ or a promise to adjust the rules according to best available science. Tribes and environmental groups expected that science would lead to stricter logging regulations to protect water quality, while many in the timber industry held out hope that science would eventually prove habitat wasn’t as important to salmon recovery as harvest or oceanic conditions.

In September, a group of forestry and salmon industry folks met again at the Quinault Lodge, deep in Olympic National Park, to reassess the timber regulations. Veterans of the original Forests and Fish negotiations expected to focus on the same old, same old -- namely the under-performing and underfunded adaptive management program. Instead, the newly-created Forest Ecosystem Collaborative, organized by the Governor’s office, the association of Indian tribes, and Peter Goldmark, the recently elected Commissioner of Public Lands, takes a big step back from the old debate. In fact, their effort appears to be as much an attempt to protect Washington’s forests as it is to preserve its native salmon runs.

In the past decade a lot has changed: hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland in Western Washington have been converted to development, and, surely as a Boeing assembly line, the timber industry has begun to shift industrial production to the southern US. The industry hasn’t exactly lost its fangs, but it’s not uncommon nowadays to pick up a local newspaper and read about an environmental group teaming up with a big timber company to preserve land from developers.

Commisioner Goldmark has expanded the conversation to include new players, such as county representatives and land conservancies, and new problems, most notably global climate change. Still in its infancy, the project faces many challenges, not least the fact that the timber industry is in an economic tailspin and Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources has had to lay off more staff members than any other state agency during the recession due to a decline in timber revenues.

And as far as salmon recovery goes: it’s now crystal clear that we need to find a way to protect the iconic fish from toxic storm water runoff, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification, not just muddy streams and landslides. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the days when logging was indeed the scariest thing in the room.