Judge hints that Clinton's forest plan is dead

 

SEATTLE, Wash. - A federal judge in Seattle is considering sending President Clinton's Northwest forest plan back to the government for more protection for owls and salmon.

Jittery forest advocates admit that such a ruling could be a mixed blessing. It could put virtually all remaining old-growth forests off-limits to logging; it could also fuel calls for weakening the Endangered Species Act in a new Congress that will be controlled by conservative Republicans.

"If we win, and the Forest Service is ordered to take further steps to permanently protect ancient forest and salmon habitat, the timber industry will mount the largest campaign in the history of the West to overturn existing laws and raid the ancient forests," predicted John Fitzgerald, executive director of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign.

Option Nine, as the Clinton plan is known, is an outgrowth of President Clinton's Northwest Forest Conference in April 1993. The controversial strategy aims to protect old-growth forest ecosystems across 24 million acres of federal land within the range of the northern spotted owl through a system of old-growth and stream corridor reserves. It would allow some thinning and salvage logging to occur within those reserves.

The plan is supposed to allow 1 billion board-feet of federal timber to be sold annually. That's about a quarter as much as was sold in the mid-1980s, before lawsuits to protect the owl and its habitat resulted in sweeping federal court injunctions that brought the timber sale program west of the Cascades to a halt.

Although Dwyer lifted the latest injunction last spring, very little timber has been sold. Option Nine requires detailed watershed studies before any new logging or road-building may occur in sensitive watersheds that are important to salmon. Sales that have been readied for auction have been appealed. The Oregon Natural Resources Council, which last year called for a zero-cut policy for federal lands, has been especially aggressive in filing appeals.

The latest round in the legal battle over Pacific Northwest forests unfolded Nov. 17 in the Seattle courtroom of U.S. District Judge William L. Dwyer, where not only the fate of centuries-old forests but also the future of ecosystem management is on trial.

Jim Lyons, assistant U.S. agriculture secretary in charge of the Forest Service, has said that what happens in Dwyer's court will determine whether the agency can proceed with ecosystem-based planning in other parts of the national forest system, including forests of the Columbia Basin east of the Cascades in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of three other states (HCN, 9/19/94).

The familiar adversaries argued their cases for what may be the last time before the judge, who has had the Northwest's old-growth forests in trust since 1988. Dwyer has consistently ruled that the National Forest Management Act requires the government to adopt a plan that assures the survival of the threatened northern spotted owl and the old-growth ecosystem.

Lawyers for environmentalists argued at the hearing that neither spotted owls nor Pacific salmon will receive adequate protection under Option Nine. Todd True of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund said the government did not seriously consider two demographic studies showing that the rate of population decline among female owls appears to be accelerating. Under Option Nine, an estimated 1.6 million acres of owl habitat - about 20 percent of what remains today - would be opened to logging.

Mike Axline of the Western Environmental Law Center said Option Nine places Pacific salmon at much greater risk than the government has revealed: The Clinton administration had directed biologists not to consider the heavily logged condition of state and private land along salmon streams.

Timber industry spokespersons attacked the secrecy surrounding the plan's development and the destruction of voluminous paper and electronic records.

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas admitted in depositions last summer that as team leader he authorized the shredding of up to six large garbage bags of paper each day, including internal communications among the scientists.

Timber industry attorney Mark Rutzick said those records might have shed light on the trade-offs and decision-making that went into Option Nine. Other evidence, turned up during pretrial discovery, revealed that all electronic communications from the first two months of the 1993 scientific deliberations were wiped out last July, Rutzick said.

"We believe the Clinton forest plan represents government at its worst," Rutzick said. The administration "demanded a revolutionary plan in 60 days. It was developed in secret by an illegal committee that destroyed its documents. The Clinton administration closely controlled the process and posted a political appointee to monitor the process."

Lawyers representing the Clinton administration did not directly address the destruction of evidence. Instead, they pleaded the government's case that Option Nine is a landmark conservation strategy and that it deserves a chance to work - even if it has created legal complications.

Six days after the Nov. 17 hearing, Dwyer asked all parties to submit briefs suggesting what course he should follow if he finds:

* that the law prohibits further logging of spotted owl habitat,

* that the government must strengthen the plan, or

* that the process of developing it was legally flawed.

Though Dwyer stressed that "no ruling on any issue is implied," both timber industry and environmental groups read his questions as a strong indication that Dwyer will find the Clinton plan inadequate.

Many environmentalists predicted the judge would issue a new injunction along the lines of Option One. It proposed stricter protection for owl and salmon habitat in old-growth areas and in watersheds.

The writer lives in Portland, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.