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Reframing Northwest environmental issues

U.S. Forest Service lock and key.

(U.S. Forest Service)

Major federal appointments dealing with the Pacific Northwest environment are still waiting to be made by President-elect Barack Obama. Washington and Oregon candidates do not appear to be in the top tier. As a result, environmental leaders are turning to plans to link Northwest forests and streams to the high priority the new administration will give to climate change.

Early speculation for Secretary of the Interior, traditionally a Western appointment, had centered on former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a longtime advocate of salmon and wildlife; and Congressman Jay Inslee, a Seattle Democrat with expertise in alternative energy matters. Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, was also being pushed by regional environmentalists, but her name seems to have faded. Kitzhaber is reluctant to move to Washington and expects the appointment of Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a Hispanic who is also supported by a coalition of 106 conservation organizations, according to a letter from more than 78 groups sent to President-elect Obama and released last week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

UPDATE:The Denver Post is reporting that Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar will be named later this week as Obama’s Interior Secretary, and also that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has a good chance of being the new Transportation Secretary.

Of equal importance is the position of Undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the U.S. Forest Service, also traditionally from the West. Talk of an undersecretary will await appointment of a Secretary of Agriculture, traditionally from a farm region.

Climate change is the mantra for scientists, environmentalists and conservationists in the forthcoming Obama administration, and through that huge portal some of the Pacific Northwest’s big-picture environmental leaders hope to also advance a progressive agenda for regional forests and streams.

“Is there a T.R. possibility?” muses Mitch Friedman, director of Conservation Northwest and a longtime defender of wilderness. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first conservation president, and pioneered national parks and federal forests more than a century ago. What could Obama do in a T.R. mode? Friedman envisions the nation moving beyond endangered species’ protection to protecting endangered ecosystems. Large blocks of forest are being broken up for development, Friedman observes, and a challenge for the Obama Administration will be reversing this loss of forest, if it is to be used to combat global warming and also to preserve the benefits to society of having healthy farms and forests. Perhaps, he speculates, the public should purchase development rights on threatened forests to prevent sprawl — a T.R.-size concept.

“Forests are the best places to store carbon,” echoes Andy Kerr, consultant, author, and longtime leader of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, now called Oregon Wild. “And the Pacific Northwest forests are the best of all. They grow fast and they live long.”

Friedman and Kerr have been in the environmental field for a quarter-century or more, and were once considered wild men, aggressively challenging federal agencies and corporate land managers. Friedman began his career sitting in old-growth trees, and Kerr was described by Time magazine as “a terrorist in a white collar.” Now elder statesmen in the region’s environmental leaders, their tactics may have mellowed but their goals for a new administration are aggressive. In separate interviews, both stressed the linkage between global warming and the region’s forests and streams. They also underscored the need to move “beyond the rollback of the rollbacks” as the Obama team tries to reverse last-minute actions of the Bush team.

Kerr sees the region’s forests increasingly valued for their ability to sequester carbon. If the nation and world move aggressively to a cap-and-trade system, the value of a mature forest may be greater to sequester carbon than to harvest. Already, Friedman notes, the value of forest real estate is up while commodity prices are low. That means the idea of forests to sequester carbon will compete not with harvesting timber but with housing developments.

If large forest tracts are preserved, benefits to wildlife and fish will accrue, but salmon preservation will require more attention, Kerr states. Reducing cattle production on public lands and increasing streamside vegetation will be needed, as will cutbacks in motorized recreation. Friedman also believes reductions in RV use are needed, but notes that the heavy inroads of motorized recreation during the Bush Administration have built an industry and a lobby with considerable clout with Congress.

Environmental lobbyists expect changes in Washington attitude as well as laws with the new administration. The Sierra Club, long a major force in the capital, places emphasis on the role of science, which has been under siege in the Bush years. “Policy based on scientific evidence that is realistic and achievable,” is how the Sierra Club puts it.

In what may be one of the last “Environment v. Bush” lawsuits, a coalition of conservation groups, including the Seattle Audubon Society, filed recently to intervene in a “spotted owl” lawsuit that charges the White House prevented the Fish and Wildlife Service from applying scientists’ advice in a major forest habitat decision. A 2007 GAO report stated that land and resource managers for the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service ignored a directive by the Interior Department to consider climate change in their management plans.

Worldchanging, a national conservation-sustainability network, recently hosted a roundtable of “some of the brightest minds working on public lands issues across the American West.” Some of the panelists recommended “longer-term and broad-scope policies, like creating a pro-science policy that supports scientific exploration and learning as well as explanation and interpretation for the public. Another idea was to institute a “precautionary principle” policy: for example, in a situation where we suspect a new form of land use will put the environment at risk, but there is scientific uncertainty, policy-makers should err on the side of caution and not allow that land use to proceed.”

The Pacific Northwest congressmen most in position to help in these goals are Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Eugene, both Democrats in senior positions. Dicks chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, which gives him great leverage over budgets for resource agencies. DeFazio, representing the nation’s timber heartland, would like to boost ecologically based thinning in logged-over forests west of the Cascades and protect old growth forests from harvest. He sits on the House Natural Resources Committee.

The president-elect took pro-conservation positions during the campaign, but neither he nor his close advisers appear to be longtime champions in this area. Most are from urban areas in the East, lacking familiarity with the wild regions of the West. With foreign affairs and the economic crisis taking priority, westerners will need strong voices at Interior and Agriculture to make their agenda visible. The best way to do that, it appears, is to hook our wagon to the climate change agenda.

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