Revolutionary Management

In Review: The Making of the Northwest Forest Plan

The Making of the Northwest Forest Plan is a long overdue accounting of an epic period in the history of forests in the Pacific Northwest. Beginning with Indigenous people’s relationships with the land, the book chronicles forest management, changing ownership patterns, and timber harvest that would become the primary force shaping these ecosystems. This history also covers important “wild science,” that is, “science that challenged assumptions underlying classical federal forest management policies” in the 1970s and 1980s, drawing attention to the ecological impact of old-growth logging.

K. Norman Johnson and Jerry F. Franklin, both emeritus professors and foresters, and Gordon H. Reeves, a retired US Forest Service fisheries biologist, are more than qualified to write this account. Between them they have decades of experience studying old-growth forests. They also were intimately involved in the five science assessments that preceded and informed the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), which came into being during a sometimes violent period of conflict between the timber industry and environmentalists in the region, often referred to as the Timber Wars. This seminal document was “the first large-scale ecosystem plan for federal forests in the United States,” and, unsurprisingly, “was castigated in apocalyptic terms by all sides” when it was released.

an owl in a tree

The Northwest Forest Plan relied on science that challenged assumptions underlying classical federal forest management policies in the 1970s and 1980s, and drew attention to the ecological impact of old-growth logging, especially on species like the northern spotted owl that are dependent on older forests. Photo by Frank D. Lospalluto/Flickr.

After almost three decades of implementing the NWFP — which covers federal forests within the range of the northern spotted owl in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California — it can be easy to forget how revolutionary it was, and still is, for land management. The authors remind us that the NWFP shifted forest management in several important ways. First, it moved management activities away from a focus on harvesting older forests to a focus on understanding and maintaining forest ecological function. The NWFP also expanded the scope of management from looking at single species to many species from many different taxa.

In sidebars that appear throughout the book, Johnson, Franklin, and Reeves also capture the varied perspectives and personal accounts of scientists and managers who helped implement the NWFP. These vignettes provide valuable insight into the reality of the dramatic management shift created by the NWFP. Cheryl Friesen, then a wildlife biologist on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon, writes in one of these about this “emotionally turbulent time,” including a period of ecoterrorism when a ranger district office was burned down and tree sitters threw urine on Forest Service employees. In another, Jim Furnish, forest supervisor on the Siuslaw National Forest in northwest Oregon, writes that many of his peers, “resented researchers usurping their authority and responded, at best, with little enthusiasm; at worst, they secretly hoped the phenomenon of the NWFP would simply fade away.”

Yet, it hasn’t faded away. The plan’s strong scientific foundation has been key to its longevity.

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While Johnson, Franklin, and Reeves acknowledge the successes of the NWFP, as well as their respective roles in its creation, they also aren’t afraid to address its shortcomings. Among those deeply unhappy with the plan were Northwest tribal nations, who the authors note, were not involved in its development. This glaring omission is addressed in a list of recommended changes to help achieve the goals of the NWFP going forward. The authors also acknowledge the different world we’re living in from the one that existed in 1994. For example, the greater presence of barred owls, a nonnative species in the Pacific Northwest and a serious threat to northern spotted owls and forest ecology, and mega wildfires are two recent developments that are now shaping the region’s old-growth ecosystems.

While the challenges remain immense, the authors’ overall optimism is clear throughout the book. Their dedication to science and understanding older forests is inspiring, as is their belief in the power of science to inform better management and foster a more sustainable future. While certain sections are perhaps too detailed for some readers, the book does a fine job of weaving together the politics of the time, the economic realities of the region, and the growing understanding of forest ecology. This last is a key point. As forest stewards, the authors write, “We should use our knowledge to guide and assist these ecosystems in recovering and sustaining their full functional capabilities.”

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