Life After Old Growth

The battle over the Northwest's ancient forests has again taken center stage, but behind the scenes, some locals are pushing for peace

  • A Greenpeace activist makes her way up to a platform in an old-growth tree in the proposed Kelsey-Whisky Timber Sale on the Medford District near Galice, Oregon

  • Siuslaw National Forest

    Diane Sylvain
  • Timber offered, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, 1980-2004

  • In eastern Oregon, loggers cut small-diameter trees in a program designed to maintain a sustainable logging economy and nurture old-growth trees

  • The Northern spotted owl

  • The marbled murrelet


"All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players"

 —Jaques, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It

MEDFORD, OREGON — Fifteen miles south of here, actors play out Shakespeare’s classics under the open sky in Ashland’s Elizabethan Theatre. But in this sweltering town of 63,000 in the heart of Oregon timber country, there’s another drama in progress. The cast is made up of environmental activists, timber industry representatives, bureaucrats and politicians, and the plot concerns the fate of some of the Northwest’s last old-growth forests.

A decade ago, President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan promised peace in the public forests. The plan appeared to balance the interests of environmentalists and industry: It put more than three-quarters of the federal forests in western Washington and Oregon and Northern California off-limits to logging, while projecting a billion board-feet a year for the mills. (It takes about 5,000 board-feet to fill a log truck, and 10,000 board-feet to build an average-sized home.) But today, war is again raging in the woods, and both sides are crying out for their causes. At times, the performance would surely give the old Bard a chuckle.

The action really got going in May, when, putting on a show of helplessness, the Bush administration yielded to a lawsuit from the timber industry and loosened the environmental restrictions built into the Northwest Forest Plan (HCN, 10/14/02: Forest protection under the knife). In response, environmentalists staged a mock funeral for the "survey and manage" rules, parading a coffin through downtown Medford. Longtime Northwest forest activist Andy Kerr told the Medford Mail Tribune that the timber wars were "about to get hot again. If conservationists are not successful in court to push back the Bush administration’s efforts to emasculate this plan, you’re going to see people sitting in trees and getting arrested at a scale much larger than ever happened before."

True to form, later that month, 100 pot-banging protesters disrupted a speech by the Bush administration’s top forest official, Under Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. In June, Greenpeace jumped into the fray. Calling for an end to old-growth logging on public lands, activists set up an encampment at the site of the BLM’s proposed Kelsey-Whisky timber sale, where 200- to 300-year-old Douglas fir trees were slated to fall. The "forest rescue station," replete with tree platforms, a biodiesel-powered fire truck and satellite communications system, was to kick off a nationwide "summer of action." The group brought in actor John C. Reilly to stump for ancient forests, and three activists were arrested after locking themselves into a three-ton metal shipping container dropped onto a logging access road.

By late June, there were rumors circulating of violence threatened against the environmentalists. "We are urging people to find nonviolent solutions to disagreements," Siskiyou National Forest ranger Pam Bode told the Mail Tribune. "We are very concerned that human lives could be hurt or people’s property damaged."

The drama reached a fever pitch over the proposal to salvage log almost 20,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest and surrounding BLM lands burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire (HCN, 6/21/04: High-stakes logging plan gets go-ahead). About 200 opponents turned out for a rally in a Medford park in early July. A few weeks later, a Biscuit timber auction drew another crowd of environmentalists, including some spillover from the Rainbow Gathering in Northern California. One protester was arrested for baring her breasts, and a second was taken into custody for interfering with the arrest of the first. The timber industry turned out its own crowd, which rallied across the street, while a troop of Medford police, Forest Service law enforcement officers and U.S. marshals guarded the agency offices. Before the month was out, both the timber industry and environmentalists had sued over the Biscuit sales, and three more activists had been arrested for blocking a road into one of them.

The scenes in Medford are straight out of the 1990 Redwood Summer campaign, when protesters rallied to save giant redwood trees in Northern California. But behind the scenes in the Northwest, there’s another story being acted out, one much less full of sound and fury, but perhaps signifying more for the forests and the small towns. Piece by piece, communities around the Northwest are creating an economy based not on dismantling native forests, but on putting them back together.

The Siuslaw National Forest saddles Oregon’s rain-drenched Coast Range west of Eugene. Parts of the forest are blasted with more than 100 inches of rain every year, and the soil here is rich. Trees love it: Douglas fir, hemlock and spruce grow up to five feet a year, and reach 20 inches in diameter in just 20 years; by age 90, they can approach three feet across. Loggers love it, too, and between 1960 and 1990, the Siuslaw was smack in the middle of the Northwest’s timber orgy.

During those 30 glorious years, the Siuslaw cranked out 10 billion board-feet of timber. "This was quality, big stuff," says Johnny Sundstrom, head of the Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation District. "It was the veneer capital of the world, and it was going out of here five trains a day."

In the early 1990s, however, the Siuslaw’s timber machine drove over a cliff. The first sign of trouble came in 1984, when a federal judge halted logging on much of the forest because it was hammering salmon habitat. Over the following decade, the northern spotted owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act, along with the marbled murrelet, another bird that nests in old-growth forests. Then came the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 — and the forest’s fate was sealed.

Between the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s, the Siuslaw’s timber harvest plummeted by more than 90 percent. "When I got there in 1991, we were a timber machine. We had over 500 employees. By 1995, we had less than 200," says Jim Furnish, who served as forest supervisor on the Siuslaw for six years before being promoted to Washington, D.C., by Clinton-era Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. "The timber industry on the Siuslaw dried up and blew away."

Furnish says he faced a decision: He could keep the remaining mills on life support by going after the Siuslaw’s last old-growth timber, or he could try to chart another path. He looked around at other forests and saw lawsuits and gridlock, and chose the latter course (HCN, 5/16/94: A forest supervisor says ‘thank you’). Other forests were "slugging away at the tar baby," trying to log old-growth timber and roadless areas, he says. "On the Siuslaw, we took a look at the tar baby and walked on."

Furnish and a handpicked management team set about cleaning up the mess left by the clear-cutting frenzy. Rather than logging the remaining old growth, they decided to make more of it — by thinning out dense, second-growth forest plantations and "releasing" the remaining trees, giving them the sunlight and nutrients they needed to grow quickly. They stopped building new roads, and started obliterating old ones. The idea was to give the Siuslaw a boost, and in the process, help the salmon, owls and other species that need big trees and clean streams to survive.

Since the Siuslaw’s dramatic turnaround, the forest has become a model for how a bureaucracy can adapt to new conditions and, at least in a small way, thrive. "It once was the Northwest’s primary logging battleground," read a story in the Oregonian last spring. "Now it’s a national forest that works."

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