Bigger fires and evolving threats force changes in the Northwest Forest Plan

  • Retired Forest Service biologist Bill Gaines hikes through the Mission Creek watershed in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, where the agency has tried different restoration methods in fire-suppressed forests. When the area burned a month later, the fire was less severe than it might have been, allowing the forest to more readily recover.

    Nathan Rice

The summer of 1994 was a nasty one for fires in Washington's Chelan County, cradled in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle. Dozens of blazes, including a disastrous one in Icicle Canyon, tore through the drought-stricken forests in late July. Almost a million gallons of fire retardant were dropped on that county, and some of it landed on Bill Gaines, a Forest Service firefighter at the time, before he retreated down the canyon.

When the inferno finally subsided, Gaines took a walk in what remained of the woods. Flames had consumed the canyon and an old-growth reserve set up to protect a pair of threatened northern spotted owls. They were nowhere to be found.

The Northwest Forest Plan –– published just three months earlier –– protected old-growth forest reserves on 24 million acres of federal land in Northern California, Oregon and Washington, while leaving some old growth to be logged. Gaines wholeheartedly believed in it. "When I first started, my view was to draw a line around the habitat, stay the hell out, and it'll be there forever," he says. "And then -- poof! -- it was gone forever in a fire."

Gaines recently retired after 27 years as a biologist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. He now works as a consultant on its effort to restore forests overgrown from decades of wildfire suppression. The agency thins dense stands and starts controlled fires to help trees fight off insects and prevent catastrophic blazes like the one in Icicle Canyon, which could become more common with climate change.

Land managers on the dry side of the Cascades, like those on the wetter Westside, are looking at new ways to care for the forests and keep spotted owls alive. But forest restoration and spotted owl recovery often clash. Here, owls prefer the same dense stands most at risk of fire and insect infestation, perhaps because invasive barred owls tend to avoid them. It's an ecological catch-22 that had Gaines and other scientists scratching their heads: How do they thin the forest to prevent disastrous fires while also leaving enough dense stands for owls? And how can they keep this habitat from going up in flames?

In response, agency scientists have developed complex ecological models to try to predict where serious fires are most likely to occur. That way, foresters can strategically restore the most crucial stands while protecting owl habitat from fire. But in order to turn the innovative science into on-the-ground policy, Gaines and his colleagues believed they would have to go out on a limb. In 2011, while beginning to revise the first new national forest plan since the timber wars, they proposed erasing the boundaries of the hard-fought old-growth reserves of the Northwest Forest Plan.

"Reserves are a static system," says Gaines. "I don't believe we have a static system anymore." Forty percent of the forest's active spotted owl areas are outside the reserves in the forest that's open to logging -- and the population is tanking. Erasing the lines on the map between reserves and timberlands would allow managers to protect the best owl habitat wherever it stands and restore the forest in between. "We're talking about utilizing the whole landscape to contribute to old-growth species as opposed to just part of it, so that these large-scale phenomena (like fire) that we have a really hard time predicting can play out."

But abandoning old-growth reserves has met fierce resistance. A letter from 229 scientists took the forest to task for removing the backbone of the Northwest Forest Plan and "dismantling key conservation biology principles." Dominick DellaSala, founding president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute, an environmental group in Ashland, Ore., contributed the first signature to the letter attacking the proposal. "It reeks of what we were dealing with under the Bush administration when they would try to get rid of the reserves," he says.

DellaSala served on Bush's spotted owl recovery team, where officials instructed him to downplay habitat protections and disregard the Northwest Forest Plan. In 2007, he joined other scientists and testified before Congress, inspiring an investigation that revealed political interference with the Endangered Species Act and caused the demise of Bush's spotted owl recovery plan.

While many environmental groups support widespread thinning to restore dry forests, DellaSala and others question the wisdom of preventing all severe fires, which can create other habitats. In the Okanogan, there's the added concern that the Northwest Forest Plan could crumble, leaving the forests at the mercy of agencies they have learned to distrust. "We know that the agencies swing wildly, depending on where the political winds are blowing," says Randi Spivak, also of the Geos Institute. Getting rid of clear reserve boundaries "says 'Danger' to me because science doesn't rule here -- politics rule."

University of Washington ecologist Jerry Franklin, who helped write the Northwest Forest Plan, supports the Okanogan-Wenatchee approach. However, he worries that it will set a precedent for removing reserves as other national forests revise their respective plans. "You can't deal with an issue like the spotted owl one forest at a time," he says. "That's why we did the Northwest Forest Plan in the first place."

In July, fire struck the Okanogan-Wenatchee again. It was one of the worst fire seasons in two decades, adding to the sense of urgency for a new plan.

Now, forest managers, who will release a draft management plan next winter, have to sell their new approach to the public and win over wary environmental groups. But trust has to come from both sides, warns Gaines: "A firm commitment from the agencies that they will focus on restoration and a firm commitment from the environmental community that they are going to work with us."

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