Northwest Forest Plan still stirs debate 10 years later
WASHINGTON - Ten years after it was adopted to cool the timber wars, the Northwest Forest Plan still stokes raging debate.
The Clinton administration signed the landmark plan on April 13, 1994, to settle lawsuits brought by environmentalists and bring a level of peace to a region rocked by conflict over logging of old-growth trees.
The plan sharply reduced logging on 24 million acres of federal land in Washington, Oregon and northern California to protect the northern spotted owl, salmon and other threatened species.
At the same time, it promised a sustainable supply of timber -- including some from older, more commercially valuable trees -- to boost an industry crippled by a ban on logging in millions of acres of national forests where spotted owls live.
Critics howled from the start.
"Everybody hated it. Nobody liked it, because nobody got all they wanted," said Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington forest ecology professor who helped write the plan. "And that's been one of the problems, (the two sides) have continued to battle ever since it was adopted."
Whatever its shortcomings, the forest plan "accomplished a tremendous amount of good and created a tremendous amount of change," Franklin said.
"I think what the Northwest Forest Plan symbolized was a major sea change in our attitude -- how we are going to manage the federal forest stands, and what our priorities were going to be," he said.
"And clearly it reversed almost a half century of focus on commodity extraction." Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, credited by many as the plan's principal author, offers a less sweeping appraisal.
"I guess what it achieved is, it complied with the law," he said.
Thomas, now a professor of conservation at the University of Montana School of Forestry, is one of several scheduled speakers at a forum marking the plan's anniversary Tuesday in Portland, Ore.
While critics on both sides attribute all sorts of motives to the plan and its authors, Thomas said the driving factor was compliance with the numerous laws governing federal forests.
The National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act, among others, forced officials to act to preserve the old-growth trees that serve as habitat for the spotted owl and other threatened species.
The forest plan was approved by the late U.S. District Judge William Dwyer in 1994 and has withstood repeated legal challenges.
Even as they mark the plan's anniversary, some environmentalists say the Bush administration is quietly dismantling it.
"There's not much to celebrate 10 years later, because if the Bush administration has its way, the Northwest Forest Plan will die on their watch. And they hope nobody sees them doing it," said Andy Kerr, an environmental consultant and former executive director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
Administration officials dispute that. They say they are merely trying to correct the plan's shortcomings, while preserving its framework and approach.
While the forest plan has largely succeeded in protecting threatened species, it has not ensured anywhere near the supply of timber promised a decade ago, said Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy.
Current logging rates in the region are about one-third of the forest plan's stated goal of 1 billion board feet per year. A board foot is one foot square by one inch thick. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a modest single-family home.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group, said the plan's impact on logging was even worse than the industry had feared.
"To see an 80 to 90 percent reduction in timber production from Northern California, Oregon and Washington is devastating," West said, noting that timber volume in the region has declined from more than 4 billion board feet a year in the 1980s to less than 400 million board feet now.
While other changes, such as the collapse of the Asian economy, an increase in imports and a decline in demand for large, older trees are contributing factors, the Northwest Forest Plan played a major role in the decline of the forest products industry and the loss of thousands of jobs, West said.
Bitterness remains over those lost jobs, but the timber industry argues that the plan harmed forest health by making it harder to clear trees from fire-prone areas.
"It made us realize you can't draw lines on a map and zone the forest in a hard and fast way, because these ecosystems are dynamic," West said. "You can't just lock up" a whole swath of the forest.
Thomas, the plan's chief author, agreed, calling flexibility crucial to proper forest management. Thomas said he realized the Forest Service would have a hard time meeting timber production goals after the Clinton administration modified his team's work, limiting forest managers' flexibility by adding more regulations to protect salmon habitat and old growth forests.
"What had been anticipated under the forest plan has not occurred, for a variety of reasons," he said.
Rey and other critics blame the discrepancy in large part on so-called "survey and manage" rules, a late addition to the plan that requires detailed study of the potential effects of logging on about 300 obscure plant and animal species. The studies can take years to complete and have brought logging of old-growth forests to a virtual halt.
In a major shift announced just last month, the Bush administration moved to ease the survey-and-manage rules and boost logging of public lands -- including some with older, more commercially valuable trees.
Environmentalists decried the change, saying it could double logging on federal land in the region and have disastrous consequences for owls and other species.
Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist, called those fears overstated, noting that 86 percent of the old-growth forest in the region remains protected.
As a vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association, Rey sharply criticized the forest plan a decade ago, denouncing it as "neither a plan nor a solution." Yet a decade later, he finds himself trying to implement the plan and vowing to fulfill commitments made by the previous administration.
Rey concedes the irony, but said there's "a simple reason" why the Bush administration is moving forward on the Clinton-era plan, rather than devising a new strategy.
"The Clinton plan has the advantage of having been sustained by the courts," he said. A complete rewrite of the forest plan would require court review, with an uncertain outcome and lengthy delay.
Thomas called that approach wise.
"Everybody asks the question, if we were to do it all over again, could you come up with another plan that is less onerous to timber and still comply with the law?" Thomas said. "The odds are no, you probably couldn't."
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