Whither the Northwest Forest Plan?

US Forest Service launches process to revise landmark public lands management plan. Greens fear rollbacks.

The US Forest Service insists that nothing has been decided upon. “Absolutely not,” said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Rob MacWhorter as the first of three scheduled “listening sessions” on the Forest Service’s process to revise the Northwest Forest Plan got underway in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday evening. But environmental advocates fear otherwise and are expressing concern that changes to the landmark forest management plan will jeopardize conservation goals.

A northern spotted owlPhoto by Ivana DramacBest known for its intent to protect the spotted owl, the Northwest Forest Plan also covers land that provides key habitat for other imperiled, forest-dependent species, including the marbled murrelet and numerous runs of Pacific salmon.

“We’re nervous about the forest plan revision. There’s more to be lost than gained at this point,” said Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator for Oregon Wild. “The plan has been very successful in its biggest task of putting the brakes on the forest cutting binge.”

Some history is needed to explain what Heiken is referring to and why more than 100 people braved rush-hour traffic to attend a meeting in an airport hotel ballroom when they could have been home eating dinner.

The Northwest Forest Plan was adopted in 1994 by the Clinton administration, which negotiated the plan as something of a peace deal between environmentalists and the timber industry. It covers about 24 million acres of public land managed by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service in Washington, Oregon and northern California. In the late 1980s, record numbers of board feet were being logged in the Pacific Northwest — more than 10 billion a year — with about half of that coming off public lands in Oregon. A lawsuit brought by environmental groups succeeded in halting much of that logging to protect critical habitat for the old growth-dependent northern spotted owl. The Northwest Forest Plan, brokered to protect this habitat while allowing logging to continue, is actually a “record of decision” that amended existing management plans for 19 national forests and seven Bureau of Land Management districts. It set aside certain forest lands as reserves to protect old growth. It also designated what are called “riparian reserves” — sensitive lands along waterways and wetlands — and allocated about 4 million acres to be managed for “multiple uses,” including logging.

The Northwest Forest Plan was hailed as unprecedented. It represented a major shift in how public forest lands are to be managed. Instead of a primary focus on timber supply, the forests were to be managed to preserve biodiversity and ecological health on a landscape scale — while at the same time allowing for some logging to continue. Best known for its intent to protect the spotted owl, the Northwest Forest Plan also covers land that provides key habitat for other imperiled, forest-dependent species, including the marbled murrelet and numerous runs of Pacific salmon. The forests covered by the plan include watersheds that provide drinking water for millions of people, as well as much-loved recreation areas. Also significant is how the plan shifted forest management from the local forest district level to an ecosystem-wide approach.

Twenty years later, it is apparent that the plan is far from perfect. In the late nineties, a federal judge found that the Forest Service had failed to properly implement parts of the plan. The spotted owl has not yet recovered. Climate change is impacting forests in ways that were not envisioned in 1994. The timber industry says the plan hasn’t lived up to its promise of consistent wood supply. And yet, as American Rivers senior director David Moryc notes, the Northwest Forest Plan has come to be regarded throughout the region as something of a “bedrock,” and was conceived of as the basis for 100 years of planning.

The National Forest Management Act requires that forest plans be revised and updated periodically, and the Northwest Forest Plan is “overdue” for its update, Forest Service officials say, while stressing that the revision process is just beginning. “We don’t know what the timeline is yet,” said spokesperson Glen Sachet. “What I do know is the 2012 planning rule provides for a 4-year time period from the beginning of when forest planning is initiated. That clock is not being started yet,” said Sachet. And Regional Forester Jim Pena said at the meeting, “There may not be a need for change.”

During her presentation, Deputy Regional Forester Becki Heath repeatedly noted that the plan is an amendment to 19 previous national forest plans. This is one of the things that makes environmentalists nervous. “The Northwest Forest Plan was written as regional strategy,” Heiken said. “I  think that’s important to maintain and that it not be balkanized it into a bunch of different forest plans.”

Shifting back to management at the forest district level would make individual forest areas more vulnerable to logging, just as they were before the Northwest Forest Plan, environmental advocates say. Conservation advocate Andy Kerr is concerned that under the Obama administration’s Forest Service 2012 planning rule, the standards of the Northwest Forest Plan could be changed from mandatory requirements to guidelines, thus weakening the plan’s species and stream protections. “The previous standards were clear and unambiguous,” said Kerr. Another concern — one voiced by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics executive director Andy Stahl — is increased logging of 100-year-old trees.

Logging interests have their own set of concerns. American Forest Resource Council vice president Ann Forest Burns says her organization would like to see changes in the plan. “Many aspects have proven unsuccessful. We hope those will be remedied,” Burns said. “Harvesting that was to happen hasn’t happened in areas thought to be best for timber harvest. Something needs to happen so that those areas are harvested.”

Kerr, however, argues that public opinion on logging of mature and old-growth forest has irrevocably changed. “They’ve lost their social license to log mature and old growth forest,” he said of the timber industry.

But Burns expressed disappointment that the Forest Service had decided to hold these “listening sessions” in major metropolitan areas. “That’s really counterintuitive for a plan that has so impacted rural areas where the forests are located,” said Burns.

Meanwhile, 11 Pacific Northwest congressional representatives – including the entire Oregon delegation and half of Washington’s –  have asked the Forest Service to hold additional listening sessions in rural communities. Speaking in Portland on Tuesday, Forest Service officials said this was under consideration but no further meetings had yet been scheduled.

Before the end of the three-hour meeting in Portland, most attendees had turned away from flip-charts and facilitated discussions and were chatting on the sidelines. Out in the hallway, South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership member Stan Petrowski waxed lyrical about coho salmon and forest connectivity. “It was the return of a coho that got me started,” he says recalling what inspired him to get involved in restoration work. “But we’re not done yet.”

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