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The Northwest's forest plan: 20 years of fighting

Owls, jobs and habitat: Have there been any real winners in since the Clinton administration compromise?

William Faulkner got it right. Just ask a Northern spotted owl. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," Faulkner famously wrote in "Requiem for a Nun." 

Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the Northwest Forest Plan, the Clinton administration document designed to save Northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, wild salmon and the many other critters that live in the Northwest's old-growth and mature federal forests. The federal Record of Decision was published on that date in 1994.

"I think it has been a success story," says Dominick DellaSalla, president of the Ashland, Ore.-based Geos Institute and of the Society for Conservation Biology's North American section.

"We were facing an ecological collapse," DellaSala says. The Northwest, he says, was "down to the last 15 or 20 percent of the old forests that were holding the whole system together." Without the plan, any older forests in the Northwest would by now be little more than a remnant.

The fight to save the Northern spotted owl — and the old-growth forests for which it became both a symbol and a surrogate — was perhaps the most significant environmental conflict of the late 20th century. It was repeatedly the headline enviro event in the Pacific Northwest, inspiring a logging truck protest in downtown Olympia, a rash of bumper stickers — "if it's hootin' I'm shootin'" — and an April 1993 conference that drew newly elected President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and five cabinet members to Portland.

The spotted owl nests and hunts in old growth forest. Because of the obvious implications for logging, the federal government tried to avoid listing the birds, but federal courts shot down government arguments and the owls were listed as threatened in 1990. A scientific committee headed by the Forest Service's senior wildlife biologist, Jack Ward Thomas, then recommended saving nearly 8 million acres of habitat. The next year, citing violation of the National Forest Management Act, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer blocked all timber sales in spotted owl habitat, which included nearly all Northwestern national forests.

In some people's eyes, we had reached Owlmageddon.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton pledged that if he were elected, he would hold a summit on the issue. After the Portland conference and the report from Thomas came out with a menu of alternatives designed to protect not only the owl but also the many other life forms with which it shared the woods, the administration sought political compromise. It chose a new option that would permit more logging than the scientists preferred.

"Option 9" became the Northwest Forest Plan. The next spring, the government issued its Record of Decision, and the plan went into effect.

Neither the industry nor the environmental community liked it — in fact, organizations on both sides sued — but the plan was good enough for Dwyer. At the end of 1994 — Owlmageddon hadn't occurred in the meantime — he lifted the injunction. Both industry and environmental groups said they were disappointed.

Neither the owl nor the forest products industry has done as well as some people had expected and many had hoped.

But, as a group of Northwestern economists observed in 1999, the sky didn't fall. Doomsday predictions of massive job losses proved false. Certain workers, mills, and communities felt pain. The Clinton administration's brave talk about retraining workers and reviving mill towns surprised virtually no one by proving to be largely hot air. Still, the Northwest economy didn't even hiccup.

And actually, says Andy Kerr, who attended the forest conference as a leader of the group now called Oregon Wild, "the industry has done fine." It has more capacity now than it did 20 years ago, albeit (just like other successful American manufacturing industries) fewer workers.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Apr 13, 8:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Mother Nature has a habit of doing things her way and it doesn't matter which side of this particular debate you're on, she wins. Every time.

http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article_pf.asp?ID=3165
http://www.npr.org/2014/01/15/262735123/to-save-threatened-owl-another-species-is-shot
http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/coopunit/pdfs/Van%20Lanen%20Thesis%20(Final).pdf
http://blog.aba.org/2013/02/who-shoots-for-you-who-shoots-for-youall.html

Djinn

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 10:49 a.m. Inappropriate

The NWFP at least gave some breathing space for owls and other critters - the smart mill owners have retooled for second growth, which is all they will see for a generation.

The SO vs BO is an interesting problem. It appears that BOs can easily take advantage of second growth but are less inclined to be found in internal habitat of old growth. So - USFWS has decided to, for a while anyway, shoot barred owls in selected areas to give more room to spotted owls. Early indications of this experiment show that spotted owls show up very fast (within weeks or days) after BO removal. Of course you have to do this at the right time anticipating juvenile dispersal, etc.

But USFWS is going to have to be shooting BOs for a while as it will take some time for the potential old growth to get to a stage that precludes BOs. Lots of dynamics at play - BOs were not common east of the Mississippi until after we planted enough trees in the prairie that allowed them to hop-scotch across to the west. Then chopped away at the old growth here until on 3% of it was left, squeezing the spotted owls and creating more BO habitat.

Yea, seems were always a step behind things.

Treker

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate

"Certain workers, mills, and communities felt pain. The Clinton administration's brave talk about retraining workers and reviving mill towns surprised virtually no one by proving to be largely hot air. Still, the Northwest economy didn't even hiccup.
And actually, says Andy Kerr, who attended the forest conference as a leader of the group now called Oregon Wild, "the industry has done fine." It has more capacity now than it did 20 years ago, albeit (just like other successful American manufacturing industries) fewer workers."

I grew up outside of Mossyrock, Washington. The largest employer in the region for five decades had been the timber industry. My great grandfather, my grandfather, my father all work(ed) in the timber industry. My dad still manages a cedar fencing mill. For a time I worked in a mill and learned first hand what that life is like. I was in Portland in 1993, across the Willamette from the Convention Center as President Clinton and VP Al Gore conducted their conference. My family all wore yellow shirts with the phrase, "My family is supported by timber dollars," emblazoned across the front in black. It was a cool, not quite cold day, and the hundreds with us were trying to ask the President to realize that decisions have consequences.

The response provided by the author is arrogant, antiseptic and completely disconnected from the reality that thousands of "those people", my people, still must live on a daily basis. It's easy to sit in an ivory tower and talk about people that you've never met or a way of life that you don’t understand or view as inferior.

On the one hand, the author essentially makes an argument that the industry has adapted to the new normal, which is very true. They've been forced too due to an extremely limited supply of raw product. Since automation (read: robotics) is the new and best way to save money and make products in a more efficient manner, the larger mills continue moving towards near full automation. It's pretty shocking the level of technology in the major producers these days.

However, the author's use of Andy Kerr's statement, which I see as cavalier and overly broad, "the industry has done fine" belies the reality that I see every time I go back home. It belies the fact that my brother, sister and I, and many like us, had to leave our hometown in order to find professional jobs.

Environmental and land use decisions are not made in a vacuum. Regardless of the location, whether in South Lake Union or Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the decisions made by our elected officials, and those who administer those decisions, have a lasting effect on the locals, regardless of where the locals may be.

If a key technological piece of Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing and Google were to suddenly be outlawed, how would the economy do? If those big four were to see the same percentage of layoffs over the next ten years, how would the author write about the local folks in Redmond, Kirkland, Fremont, Ballard, South Lake Union, Everett, Renton, etc? Eventually the economy would flatten out, but it would never be the same again. The baseline would be changed forever.

I've watched as rural high schools have been gutted of funding, students and families. I've been near tears to see what used to be glorious, thriving, healthy communities now filled with drugs, alcoholism and depression. Have those three always been a problem? Yes, of course. Now, however, it’s the rule, not the exception. And the local law enforcement does not have nearly the resources they once did thanks to a cratering tax base.

Go to Morton and tell me that the "industry is fine." Go to anywhere in rural Skagit, Snohomish, Lewis, Grays Harbor, Cowlitz, Skamania, or Pacific Counties and tell me the industry is fine.

Crosscut Editors/Publishers: Please take the time to actually find someone who knows what they’re talking about before writing or publishing an article that very clearly is written to show one side of the argument. Or, better yet, bring someone on board who can provide the other side of the discussion.

dchoffman

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 6:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with you completely. My family lived in Pacific County during the 1970's. I moved away for college, to Seattle.

Today Pacific County and all the counties who depended upon fishing and logging are the poorest, highest unemployment counties in our State.

If "eventually those county economies will flatten out", I'd sure like to hear a valid prediction of exactly when. The damage is great: drugs, alcoholism, depression and far to many early deaths is too heavy of a price to pay.

I agree with every word you have said.

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 7:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately it was going to come to this sooner or later - the vast majority of the timber restrictions are on US Forest Service land because the private holdings were stripped of their old growth long ago.

In Washington we now have 3% of the old growth we once had. If we had marched on in the same fashion we had been, the results for mill towns would have been the same - some would close, some would manage to re-tool.

What we should have done (IMO) was use the knowledge and skills of those in the logging industry to rebuild the infrastructure of our National Parks and Forest Service lands. Who knows how to work in the woods better than these guys? And do you think they could manage to figure out how to repair some our failing park infrastructure, do some selective thinning to ease pest and fire problems?

Having worked with forest folks all my career I'd have to saw they are the hardest working SOBs out there. Some change was inevitable in the forest industry, but it didn't need to be so brutal.

Treker

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