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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


"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."

Today, the Siuslaw is one of only a handful of national forests that is actually exceeding timber-cut goals set under the Northwest Forest Plan, says Mary Zuschlag, a natural resource officer with the forest. The plan had estimated that the Siuslaw could produce 5 million board-feet annually. "We’ve been funded for about 20 million," she says. "We would like to ratchet our program up to 40 or 50 million board-feet per year."

What’s shocking is that environmentalists agree: They are as anxious as anyone to hurry the cut-over forests back to old-growth conditions. "We think the clock is ticking," says Jeremy Hall, a field representative with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a group known for stopping timber sales, not for supporting them. "Once these trees get older than 50 years old, they are not going to respond as well to thinning.

"There’s literally hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in western Oregon and Washington in the same condition," he adds. What’s more, the Siuslaw has shown that forest restoration can pay: The forest’s timber program has netted a modest profit for taxpayers. Innovative forest managers are using "stewardship contracts" to restore cut-over forests. These contracts essentially pay loggers based on the health of the forest they leave behind, not the logs that are taken out (HCN, 1/17/00: Experiment takes the cut out of logging). The national forest sells the logs, and keeps any proceeds.

"When I first started on the project, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into," says Todd Merritt, a forester with Georgia Pacific who oversaw the Siuslaw’s first stewardship contract. "It took a lot of time. But here was the Forest Service telling me they wanted us to cut a certain amount of timber so they’d have funds to do some other stuff they wanted to do. They’re telling me I have to cut the trees."

That "other stuff" included helping a local partnership called the Siuslaw Watershed Restoration Project mend degraded salmon streams. The agency used a helicopter to drop giant logs into creekbeds that had been stripped to the bedrock by "splash damming," a past practice in which timber companies built dams high in the watershed and then dynamited them, washing logs to mills downstream. The airlifted logs have created spawning beds for salmon, and local coho populations are already rebounding. In August, the restoration project won the $100,000 International Thiess Riverprize, billed as the "Nobel Prize for river restoration."

The communities around the Siuslaw have come to embrace the new direction, says Johnny Sundstrom, whose conservation district and nonprofit Siuslaw Institute have been central to the restoration work: "I have an 85-year-old heavy equipment operator who is just proud as hell that he’s correcting problems he saw as a kid."

Salmon aren’t the only species on the rebound. Marbled murrelet populations have leveled out after a precipitous decline. While spotted owl populations are still falling, biologists blame other factors, such as the invasion of barred owls, which compete for habitat (HCN, 2/16/98: The spotted owl has a new enemy). Zuschlag expects more progress over the coming years as the thinned plantations become more like old-growth forests.

"Life after old-growth harvest is good," she says.

Just north of the Oregon-Washington border, beneath the sky-piercing peaks of Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier, another timber machine has done a dramatic about-face, though it’s less likely to boast about it.

In the years following the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest was at the heart of the controversy over continued old-growth logging (HCN, 11/23/98: A patchwork peace unravels). The forest put up dozens of old-growth timber sales, and for a few years in the mid-1990s — shielded by the infamous "salvage logging rider," which exempted timber sales from citizen appeals — it placed between 30 million and 60 million board-feet on the auction block per year, about 10 percent of what the forest produced in the 1980s.

But once the salvage rider expired, environmentalists came back swinging, filing 37 appeals on the Gifford Pinchot between 1997 and 2002. For three years, the forest was completely paralyzed. "There were virtually no projects coming off the forest," says Emily Platt, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, the group that led the charge against old-growth cutting. "But we could see that this wasn’t a good long-term solution."

Platt went to the Forest Service with a proposition: Stay out of the old-growth, she told agency officials, and we’ll stay out of the courtroom. "They laughed at me," she says. "They said, ‘We don’t believe that anything we do won’t get litigated.’ "

But the task force made good on its promise, and actively supported what Platt describes as "some beautiful thinning projects." Last year, the forest offered for sale 20 million board-feet of timber. Virtually all of it came from thinning projects, and there was no controversy to speak of. This year, the forest expects to offer 17 million board-feet. It’s a far cry from the 300 million to 600 million board-feet the forest offered almost every year in the 1980s, but it’s a start.

Platt and her colleagues have also begun to work with local residents, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, loggers, even labor unions, in the Gifford Pinchot Collaborative Working Group, which is trying to make the forest work again — for wildlife and for rural communities. Both desperately need it.

Take Packwood, Wash., where the sole timber mill closed in the late 1990s, laying off 300 people. Shortly after the mill closed, the Forest Service closed its local ranger station, slashing another 80 jobs. Young families moved away, leaving a few "stickers" along with a growing population of retirees and summer residents. The town’s doctor left, and the elementary school closed last year, so the remaining schoolkids, from kindergarten on up, wake at 5:30 in the morning to catch the bus to a neighboring town.

"Who’s gonna man the volunteer fire department?" asks John Squires, a third-generation Packwood resident who cuts firewood on the national forest and sells it to campers in Mount Rainier National Park. "Who’s gonna do search and rescue, if we’re all 70 years old?"

A self-described "lifer," Squires has been one of the driving forces behind the collaborative working group. Three years ago, he organized the field trip that first brought the group together. "We had three vans. We kept getting out, and the rule was that you couldn’t sit next to the same person twice," he says. "We had grizzled loggers sitting next to environmentalists, and we came to a mutual understanding that we actually have a lot of things in common."

The group has since held a workshop for local forest contractors, and commissioned a study of the possibility of manufacturing products in local communities using small-diameter trees. It recently won funding to do a "programmatic" environmental assessment that, if all goes as planned, will allow loggers to thin more than 13 million board-feet of lumber from dense, overgrown tree plantations — and at the same time save the Forest Service money on individual environmental studies. The group is hoping to fund much of the work with stewardship contracts.

If the truce holds, Forest Supervisor Claire Lavendel says she ought to be able to meet the Northwest Forest Plan’s timber projections for the Gifford Pinchot: between 53 million and 63 million board-feet each year. "Building that public trust back is the hardest thing," she says.

"We’re not going to go cut a big patch of old growth. To be honest, that isn’t going to happen," says Squires. "For the moment, it makes sense to focus our energy on thick stands. In five or 10 years, we can revisit big trees — or maybe that’s something my daughters will do in 30 or 40 years. What we can do now is set the table. We can give my community a chance to survive.

"In 10 years, you all may be warring over timber in the rest of the West," he adds, "but we think we’re going to solve it here."

Clearly, real progress is possible on the national forests. But the course of true love never did run smooth — and neither has the continued old-growth drama.

Much of the current controversy can be traced back to President Clinton. The Northwest Forest Plan put about 7 million acres into old-growth reserves, but almost half of those reserves had already been cut over. Some thinning would be allowed in these forests, with the goal of speeding them toward old growth, but it would be a century or three before they were any good for owls and murrelets. And in a concession to the timber industry, the plan left roughly 1 million acres of old-growth forests in the "matrix" and open to logging. The authors of the plan believed the owls and other species would still have a decent chance of survival while younger forests grew back. In the meantime, the million acres would keep the mills running.

This proved incredibly contentious, however. Environmentalists argued that the existing old-growth habitat was being sacrificed for habitat that didn’t yet exist — that might not exist for hundreds of years. They took the issue to court, arguing that land managers had failed to follow the plan’s "aquatic conservation strategy," which protected salmon streams and watersheds, as well as the "survey and manage" rules, which required agencies to look for a host of rare species — from voles to salamanders — that are associated with old-growth forests, but not protected by the Endangered Species Act. Judges agreed. One 1999 ruling by Washington district court Judge William Dwyer had the jaw-dropping effect of overturning 800 million board-feet worth of timber sales.

After four years of approaching — and in some case exceeding — timber projections, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management watched the cut drop nearly to nothing. The timber industry was enraged. Its mantra, despite the fact that the agencies had reduced their timber projections to about 800 million board-feet annually, was, "Where’s our billion board-feet?"

Enter George W. Bush, who put timber industry higher-ups in the government offices responsible for regulating the national forests. Mark Rey, the Agriculture under secretary in charge of the Forest Service, spent his career working for the timber industry, and has tackled his new job with a single-minded determination to remove barriers to logging. Mark Rutzick, one of the chief attorneys directing the administration’s salmon policies, was the longtime industry lawyer who drafted the settlement between the industry and the administration that led to the weakening of the Northwest Forest Plan’s old-growth protections.

In fact, just as Vice President Dick Cheney met secretly with oil and gas execs to draft his national energy policy, the administration also worked behind the scenes with timber representatives to rewrite rules on the public forests. In a letter sent to the administration in late 2001, and later released to environmentalists through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, industry higher-ups laid out their wish list. Among other things, they asked the administration to remove the single greatest barriers to logging the 1 million acres of unprotected old-growth: the aquatic conservation strategy and the survey and manage rules.

The Bush administration gave the timber industry everything it asked for. "They’re determined to get the last of the old growth out of the matrix," says Francis Eatherington, a forest monitor with the environmental group Umpqua Watersheds. "They want to turn these forests into plantations before we stop them, because once they have a tree farm, it’s there for the industry in perpetuity."

Environmentalists aren’t the only ones complaining. "I don’t understand what (Bush administration officials) are doing. It doesn’t seem to me that they’re trying to move forward with the creation of some consensus," says Jerry Franklin, a forest ecologist at the University of Washington, and one of the authors of the Northwest Forest Plan.

In the past year, Franklin, along with the other three main authors of the plan, as well as former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, have proposed banning old-growth logging altogether. "We, as a society, agree that we don’t want to cut big trees any more. That wasn’t clear in 1993," says Franklin.

The million acres of old-growth left unprotected by the Northwest Forest Plan were meant to keep the mills running, but in fact, most of the old-growth sales have never made it out of the courts. The industry has turned instead to private timberlands — or shipped out to Asia and South America, where the legal hurdles don’t exist. According to the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group, 80 percent of the remaining mills have retooled to work with small-diameter logs. "On one hand, you can count the number of mills in Oregon that mill a big log," says Todd Merritt with Georgia Pacific. Still, with the current political climate, industry is wary of bidding on federal timber, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

"We’re going to need to do a whole lot of active management over the next century," says Franklin. "The key to that is to have public trust. The biggest contribution (the administration) could make is to say, ‘As a matter of policy, we’re not going to cut old-growth forests and big trees,’ and take roadless areas off the table. That would take care of a lot of conflict right there."

"I don’t think you build trust by failing to uphold your word," responds Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey. "President Bush has concluded that we will redeem the commitment of the Clinton administration to provide a billion board-feet a year. That’s pretty much what we’ve been about."

In reality, however, the federal timber cut has skipped along at next to nothing, like a coot sprinting across a pond, trying frantically to take off. Rey says getting the program off the ground will require even more changes to the Northwest Forest Plan. He wants Congress to take forests out of the old-growth reserves, lifting another level of protection.

But the reserves are the scientific foundation of the plan, and any effort to redraw the boundaries is sure to land in yet another legal quagmire. Besides, says Franklin, "The reality is that they could probably get out the billion board-feet a year without cutting old-growth forests and without cutting big trees."

However, that’s not likely to happen, according to Jim Furnish, who served as the Forest Service’s deputy chief for national forests under Rey for a year before leaving in frustration. "Is the priority now to continue to cut old-growth timber in the Cascades, or should the Forest Service wise up and say, ‘There is another path,’ " he asks. "Much to my chagrin, the agency seems lashed to that old wagon. They’re a slave to the old-growth question."

Old-growth logging is good for a few of Bush’s supporters: The timber industry donated roughly $1 million to Bush’s 2000 campaign; by Aug. 2 of this year, Bush had netted $543,000 from timber interests for his 2004 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But it’s creating some very bad blood. At a time when the Northwest forests desperately need peace, love and understanding, the rancorous drama plays on, as the public watches in the papers and on TV. Rather than building communities that can handle the challenges presented by cut-over forests, says Derek Volkart with the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, "you’re creating your next generation of radicals."

Ironically, in its hunger for old-growth trees, the timber industry may have sealed its own fate with another request to the Bush administration. As a condition of dropping their lawsuit against the Northwest Forest Plan, timber companies demanded that the federal government review the status of the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet; they hoped the birds would prove healthier than they were a decade ago, and could therefore be stripped of protection. The final "status reviews" are due out later this year, but the early prognosis isn’t what the industry had hoped for.

An independent team of scientists found this summer that the owl is still on the decline in much of Oregon and all of Washington state. While old-growth logging doesn’t pose as serious a threat as it once did, the scientists listed a host of new problems, ranging from aggressive barred owls and West Nile virus to the wildfires and sudden oak death that are taking out owl habitat. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to decide what to do with the findings, some scientists are suggesting that all old-growth forests — even the 1 million acres in the matrix — may be important to the owl’s survival.

The murrelet is faring even worse. Another team of independent scientists concluded this fall that the birds will disappear from California, Oregon and Washington in the next century; the only likely survivors will be 45 birds around Puget Sound. While these findings would indicate that even more caution is in order, the Bush administration seems intent on peeling away the bird’s protections. In early September, the Interior Department released a report stating that the murrelets in Oregon and Washington are not significantly different from birds in British Columbia and Alaska, and therefore do not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The findings, which fly in the face of what independent and agency scientists recommended, were doctored by a high-level administration official, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson. The New York Times recently editorialized: "This administration seems to make no accommodation for anything besides humans’ economic desires. Any creature in the way may find itself legislated, litigated or regulated out of existence."

But two recent court decisions suggest that, even if the Bush administration creates loopholes for industry in environmental laws, the last old-growth trees won’t be headed to the mills any time soon. In early August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmentalists who questioned the legality of old-growth timber sales within the matrix. The sales would have destroyed critical habitat for the spotted owl, and that would have been "blatantly contradictory to Congress’ express demand" under the Endangered Species Act, according to the court (see story, page 5). The case now goes back to a district court, which will decide what timber sales will be affected. Dave Werntz, science director for the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, says hundreds of sales could be affected.

The 9th Circuit also granted environmentalists an emergency injunction on several sales within old-growth reserves burned by the Biscuit Fire, stopping logging at least temporarily. Joseph Vaile with the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center says that "in an attempt to be reasonable," his group appealed only the Biscuit sales that fell within the old-growth reserves, not the sales in the matrix. "They would produce more timber if they were not cutting old growth," he says. "But they’re going after the biggest snags in areas that are only moderately burned. They’re talking about clear-cutting 20,000 acres, and many are in reserves and roadless areas."

So for the time being, at least, the melodrama continues, thanks to the Bush administration’s efforts to roll back the clock on forest protection. But in the communities that are slowly coming to live with a new era of forest restoration, some wonder if it’s time to close the curtains on the play. After all, the public has clearly spoken in favor of saving the last big trees.

"Does it make sense to piss into a hurricane?" asks John Squires, the Packwood, Wash., firewood cutter. "Or does it make more sense to spend our tax dollars on something that’s more likely to go through? It’s our money that’s wasted because somebody wants to make a political point. And who gets left behind? It’s the little guy in the little community who wants to get out into the woods."

Greg Hanscom is editor of High Country News.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

- A timber town learns to care for the forest


Siuslaw National Forest 541-750-7000

Siuslaw Institute 541-964-5901

Gifford Pinchot National Forest 360-891-5000

Gifford Pinchot Task Force 503-221-2102

Oregon Natural Resources Council 503-283-6343

Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center 541-488-5789

Umpqua Watersheds 541-672-7652